About the National Archives

Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut, April 2, 2008

Remarks by Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States
April 2, 2008

Throughout the past decades, Connecticut's cadre of state and national leaders were quick to address the theme of archives and democratic development—political and economic, American and global—and nowhere more effectively than here at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center—home to the University of Connecticut's archives and special collections.

At the Center's dedication on October 15, 1995, President Bill Clinton spoke eloquently of the links connecting the accessibility of records and a free society: "We must take steps," Clinton observed, "to make sure that the documents of our democracy are safe for the millions of Americans and new immigrants and foreign visitors who view them every year." The President also called attention to the crucial role in sustaining democracy in times of crisis by archives and libraries and their contents.

In an act as creative and farsighted as few others in time of war, Franklin Roosevelt presided over the design and construction of his own Presidential library at his Hyde Park estate, donating the building and his papers to the federal government, and thus single-handedly laying the groundwork for the systematic development of similar libraries by every subsequent chief executive from Harry Truman to George W. Bush. Why? FDR said it best at his library’s dedication on June 30, 1941:

"[This] addition to the archives of America is dedicated at a moment when government of the people by themselves is being attacked everywhere... It is, therefore, welcome proof, if any were needed, that our confidence in the future of democracy has not diminished in this nation and will not diminish."

The connection between effective and maximally open archives, on the one hand, and aggressive advocacy of democratic values, on the other, received clear definition in that same FDR address while explaining his commitment to Presidential libraries:

"To bring together the [records] of the past and to house them in buildings where they will be preserved for the use of men and women in the future, a nation must believe in three things. It must believe in the past. It must believe in the future. It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its own people to learn from the past that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future."

It requires no abrupt shift from World War II America to the present to recognize that our country confronts today many similar issues awaiting resolution.

It strikes me as more serendipitous than coincidental that the National Archives—known as NARA in Washington acronym parlance—finally emerges in the United States as an institutional reality only during the worst period of the worst domestic crisis in American history—the Great Depression of the 1930s.

It is crucially important to recognize the pivotal role played by President Franklin Roosevelt in projecting the values of democracy through highlighting the importance of archival accessibility or "openness." Thus, it is nothing short of extraordinary that with all his responsibilities, FDR found time in mid-February 1942, at the low point in the United States' fortunes in the war, to write a letter to the first national archivist, Dr. R.D.W. Connor, concerned with the need to protect our entire national heritage "because of the conditions of modern war against which none of us can guess the future."

Roosevelt told the Archivist that it was his hope that everything possible be done "to build up an American public opinion in favor of what might be called the only form of insurance that will stand the test of time."

The President was referring to "the duplication of records by modern processes like the microfilm"—(remember this was 1942)—"so that if in any part of the country original archives are destroyed, a record of them will exist in some other place."

Many of today's issues—raised first in earlier periods such as the FDR era — are concerns, at their heart, over significant elements of archival accessibility. One crucial difference between then and now, of course, involves the impact of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) upon these issues, not available in that earlier period but omnipresent now.

When I sued (with help from the ACLU) and won (against the FBI) in 1975 the first FOIA lawsuit for files of historical interest, few at the time could have predicted the vast and complex influence of the Freedom of Information Act on American economics, politics, and society. That statute has become, with all of its flaws and unanticipated usages, a cornerstone of access to government records and, as such, pivotal in maintaining a robust democracy.

Like many other historians and countless other researchers, my research has benefited over the years from the greater openness of archival records that FOIA has encouraged through formal requests, appeals where necessary, and even lawsuits when other remedies fail. FOIA's very existence has often constituted an effective weapon in prying documents loose from reluctant government agencies—including the National Archives.

Speaking at the Dodd Center's dedication in 1995, President Clinton reminded his audience of the Nazis' horrendous book-burnings, stressing that "only democracies can genuinely protect our liberties," calling books and—by extension—archives "weapons for man's freedom."

Those of you who may have been here for the dedication ceremony may recall how pleased the President was "that [Senator] Tom Dodd [would] be remembered here, in this place, in this building, in this center, in the state he loved, with the very best arsenal for the freedom he fought to defend his entire life."

I have now served as Archivist of the United States for over three years and it is the commitment to the accuracy and transparency of, and the accessibility to, the records in our holdings that have been the dominant themes of the National Archives' strategic planning for the next decade. Our plan states, in part: "We will preserve and process records to ensure access by the public as soon as legally possible," and "we will provide prompt, easy, and secure access to our holdings anywhere, anytime." And we mean it.

In the past several years, the Archives has released a wide variety of records, both in response to FOIA and as a result of systematic reviews. To name only a few:

  • The files of Supreme Court nominees John Roberts and Samuel Alito;
  • The post-Presidential papers of Dwight Eisenhower;
  • The personal papers of Rose Kennedy;
  • 60 more hours of Lyndon Johnson's phone conversations;
  • National Security Council files from the Ford administration;
  • Domestic policy papers from the Clinton White House;
  • Portions of files from independent counsels from Iran/Contra and Whitewater; and
  • The official and confidential files of J. Edgar Hoover.

As a historian, I have relied personally on access to records in the stacks and vaults of the National Archives and Records Administration. They document not only the actions of the U.S. government, but also justifications and deliberations surrounding those actions. These records are the lifeblood of historians who write the story of the nation's past.

Just as important, government records provide information that Americans are entitled to have as citizens of a democracy, one rooted in openness and accountability where government actions should normally be transparent.

Two years ago, I was astonished to learn of actions that seriously threatened these traditions of openness, accountability, and transparency. Previously declassified records in the National Archives had been quietly removed from our open shelves by their originating agencies with an eye toward reclassification—without public notice and without reasons being cited. Affected were records that researchers had already used, in some cases for decades.

A subsequent audit revealed that more than 25,000 publicly available records, previously unclassified, had been withdrawn from NARA's stacks by their originating agencies since 1999. A random sample of 1,353 records revealed that a stunningly large portion of them—more than one-third—were wrongly reclassified.

The audit also revealed that in some cases, unclassified records were withdrawn to obfuscate or hide the reclassified records that the originating agency was actually attempting to protect. These practices, which undermine one of NARA's basic missions, to preserve the authenticity of files under its stewardship, must never be repeated.

NARA has been working with the affected agencies to see that improperly removed documents are back on the shelves as soon as possible. Archives staff has developed a national declassification initiative aimed at improving the management and handling of classified records.

Inappropriate declassification of sensitive documents can expose citizens, the country, and our democracy to serious threats and potential harm. But inappropriate classification—and reclassification—strikes at the very heart of the democratic principles of openness, accountability, and transparency by which we govern ourselves.

Providing wider access to the billions of pages of textual records already in the National Archives nationwide is also a major challenge, and that is where digitizing projects come in.

Toward this end, we have established major partnerships with private entities, and we are looking for others. Recently we entered into a partnership with Footnote, Inc. to digitize millions of records. Footnote is a subscription-based web service that features searchable original documents. So far, Footnote has digitized more than five million pages that are now available on its web site.

Footnote has taken the initiative to digitize all 58,000 names inscribed in the Vietnam War Memorial and correlate them with military personnel records from the National Archives. Placing the memorial on the Internet, and providing ways to search by name, age, hometown, state, service, unit, and other factors, increases access to these records dramatically.

We are also working to develop our own capability to digitize and make available—electronically via the Internet—collections of traditional paper records. And we are looking for additional partners to help us digitize records to broaden their accessibility.

Greater access has come for another collection of records in which there is great interest: the records of Richard M. Nixon.

Last year, the National Archives officially took over the private Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California, and now operates it as part of our Presidential Library system. We are bringing together all the records of Richard Nixon's life—public, political, and private—from his youth through post-Presidency.

This will include records that had been held by the Nixon Foundation in the privately run library as well as Nixon records that have been housed in College Park, MD, and other NARA locations since President Nixon left office in 1974.

So far, I've talked about what we're doing in the here-and-now about maintaining and improving access to public records. But real widespread access will come with the electronic records archives, or ERA. When completed, ERA will allow anyone, anywhere, at anytime, to access through the Internet the important records of the U.S. Government.

The ERA will be our "archives of the future," or "archives without walls."

Eventually, ERA will provide electronic access to the electronic records of today's and tomorrow's government and the important digitized traditional records that we now hold. And, eventually, ERA will preserve all kinds of records in addition to textual records, such as e-mails, web pages, digital images, videotapes, maps, spreadsheets, audio files, charts, drawings, databases, satellite imagery, and more.

ERA will allow researchers in the future to access records now in the archives and those being created electronically—regardless of the software and hardware used to create them or the kinds available in the future when access is desired.

A word on one issue of concern to the National Archives: resources. If asked by a member of Congress or the President or a member of this audience what was most needed, I would probably respond as one-time AFL leader Samuel Gompers did when asked at a Congressional hearing what the goal of the labor movement was. He reportedly responded that he could sum it up in one word: "more."

Yet, equally important as appropriate funding to successful management of the National Archives, in my view, is the intangible quality of civility and bipartisan support which we certainly have enjoyed in our dealings with Congress and with the White House since I became Archivist.

It is a privilege to lead the guardians of America's documentary heritage as we stand watch over our responsibilities in protecting not only the "Charters of Freedom" but the remaining nine billion plus text items and millions of audiovisual materials—a growing amount of it in electronic form—that comprise the "stuff" of this country's past and current legacy.

Make no mistake about it: at the National Archives, we are in the access business. We stand ready to provide access to all those who come: the scholar researching a book, the veteran seeking information to claim entitled benefits, the genealogist researching for family history, the reporter working on a current news story, the victim of a natural disaster trying to reassemble a life, and the individual citizen interested in the history of this country.

We believe that full access to the records that spell out our rights, chronicle the actions of our government officials, and record our national experience provides the transparency needed for a healthy and vital democracy such as ours.

In his 1998 book, Secrecy, the late scholar-statesman Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote, "It is time to begin building the supports for the era of openness that is already upon us." At the National Archives, we are moving with all deliberate speed into the world of openness urged by Senator Moynihan.

But that era of openness needs a citizenry that appreciates the value of not only the access they have to these records but also the power these records can have to change their lives.

To foster a greater awareness of public records and their usefulness, we are expanding our programs aimed at lifting the level of civic literacy by educating our citizens about the records we hold. In many of these instances, we are fortunate to have the help of private sector partners.

In the new Boeing Learning Center located in our Washington headquarters, and in our facilities around the country, we work with schools, teachers, and students to demonstrate the value of teaching and learning with original, historic documents.

The message that underscores these efforts is simple: history can be made more meaningful if it involves the actual documents that made history and changed the course of the American experience. We deliver this message through our museum, public outreach, communications, and education programs, such as National History Day and Federal Teaching American History grants.

In conclusion, in the coming years, we will not waver in our commitment to ensuring that Americans and citizens of the world will continue to find the records they need in the National Archives of the United States. It is our obligation to citizens and to future generations to keep our democracy open, transparent, and accountable.

Harry S. Truman, a person of uncommon wisdom dispensed with uncomplicated brevity, observed simply about archival access in democracies that "secrecy and a free, democratic government don't mix." As true an assertion in our own time as in the difficult decades of the 20th century when we survived with our democracy intact.

I will now end with a story told by President Eisenhower: A government worker arrived in Washington in 1953, and as his taxi passed by the National Archives Building, he saw carved on one of its pedestals "What is Past is Prologue." He asked the taxi driver what the motto meant, and the reply was: "Oh. That. That's bureaucratic talk. What it really means is 'you ain't seen nothin' yet."