About the National Archives

Society of American Archivists, August 30, 2008

Remarks of Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein
SAA Closing Session, Annual Meeting
San Francisco, August 30, 2008

The SAA program describes this closing session as one which addresses “perspectives on the issues that the profession faces in the coming years.” The topic is not new to me.

Even at my Senate confirmation hearing in July 2004, I was asked to review the “challenges” I would confront as Archivist. At that time, I outlined a list of priorities that included familiar and obvious ones, like the following:

  • Reducing the enormous backlog in processing and making available to the public the nine billion plus documents and other materials under the National Archives’ oversight at our Washington, DC facilities and throughout NARA’s Presidential library system and regional archives.

    I tried—half-whimsically—to ban the word “backlog” in favor of discussing NARA’s “surplus” of documents, which sounds better but which remains today an intractable problem after decades of diminished budgets and staff cuts.

  • Number two: Moving forward NARA’s major electronic records initiatives, including the Electronic Records Archives—ERA, which recently demonstrated its “initial operating capability”—IOC. On a revised schedule to be sure, but still the first system of its kind to be stood up and become operational. (Any of you who have worked on the ERA, please stand up and be acknowledged.)

  • Third, continuing the development of NARA’s educational and civic literacy programs throughout all NARA facilities, including expanded support for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission programs under NHPRC’s creative new leader, Kathleen Williams. Full transcripts of all the Founding Fathers papers will be available on line within three years.

  • Next, strengthening cooperation among the Presidential libraries in NARA’s system while, at the same time, continuing the development of effective liaison with state, local, and other non-governmental archival groups under the leadership of David McMillen. (Please stand, David.)

David also ably assisted me this year in elevating Congressional support for the National Archives to record levels. The National Archives owes a huge debt of gratitude to key members and staff in the Congress who have lent their support to our mission

Each of these issues, and others I am about to discuss, have remained at the top of my concerns on a daily basis since assuming this post—and each will undoubtedly remain a priority for archivists in the years and decades ahead.

Some, though comparably important, found no place in my confirmation testimony four years ago. For example, the complexities of bringing in new libraries to the existing Presidential library system. Preparations for the George W. Bush Library have gone on with only modest controversy; each Presidential library brings some with it at the start as part of its dowry.

However, and despite our success in coming to an agreement with the existing private Nixon Library for its inclusion in the NARA system, I learned at some personal cost why it took over three decades to untangle the burdens of history and law prior to escorting the Nixon Library through the Federal gates. It will take some additional time, of course, to complete the assimilation process.

And then there was an occasional miracle, notably the restoration of “our” copy of the Magna Carta, made possible by philanthropist David Rubenstein. The National Archives is deeply grateful for his generosity.

Another unanticipated set of issues for the Archives has involved some dramatic new programming in the international realm: An expanded program of cooperation with our Canadian colleagues, including a joint Ottawa/Washington pair of exhibits on the 1783 Treaty of Paris, cooperation among all the major democracies in updating and reforming the International Council on Archives (ICA), and ongoing program development involving American, Canadian, Israeli, and Palestinian archivists – a program that will take me next week to Jerusalem and Ramallah for meetings—to organize cooperative programs of archival training and mutual support between the two Middle Eastern protagonists.

As for the International Council on Archives, it celebrates its 60th anniversary this year and has grown to include representatives from more than 130 countries. NARA, like several other democracies with large national archives, makes a sizeable annual financial contribution to the ICA, in addition to providing major in-kind support.

One vexing internal issue of major consequence for the National Archives and the entire archival community is the continued “brain drain” and loss of experienced staff due to retirement and compounded by aging facilities in our physical plants, deteriorating records and unconscionable administrative backlogs (no, not surpluses).

What stands out, however, as both challenge and achievement since becoming archivist involves the key sacred mission common to all in our profession, words borrowed from my confirmation statement:

“As Archivist, I will enforce the laws regarding access to public records at all times and instances to the very best of my ability. Where problems occur, it will be my intention to pursue solutions (through dialogue and persuasion, if possible) at the earliest possible moment…my job description is transparent. The Archivist of the United States works for the American people, indifferent to partisanship.

“Therefore, the Archivist must display at all times a devotion to the laws and principles governing the responsibilities of the office. Moreover, the Archivist serves as the designated custodian of America’s essential ‘records that defy the tooth of time’.”

Fancy words, but are they reflected in NARA’s actions?

  • Item: since February 2005, when I took office, more than four and one-half million pages of previously-classified material have been released to public inspection. Recall also that two years ago, we at NARA shut down the then-extensive practice of reclassifying materials which, I discovered, had previously been declassified. In that process, I put an end to secret agreements between NARA and two intelligence agencies negotiated during my predecessor’s tenure, and I guarantee that none have followed.

Turning to today’s issues, which I plan to address at length in my “State of the Archives” talk later this fall. I can assure my colleagues in this audience that as long as I remain Archivist of the United States, my senior staff and I will continue working to achieve in the end the fullest documented record possible of the current administration.

A New York Times editiorial writer last month complained that “the Archives needs spine stiffening.” Really! You should know that my staff has been meeting regularly with White House personnel to encourage expedited processing of all appropriate records. Of one thing, however, you can be certain: The Archives has been on the case, is on the case, and will continue to be on the case.

But since the National Archives is the Federal government agency whose primary purpose is to support American democracy by making government records available to the public, the question becomes: When subject matter experts at the various Federal government agencies classify or control such information, how is it identified and protected, and when can the public gain access?

The National Archives’ Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) monitors the security classification program throughout the government. In addition, beginning this year, the National Archives has also been charged with overseeing the implementation of a recently-announced, government-wide framework for managing so-called “controlled unclassified information (CUI).”

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt cautioned Americans in 1933, seventy-five years ago, that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he forgot to add the appropriate response: ‘Frankly, that’s plenty.’

The National Archives has been entrusted by Congress and the executive branch, past and present, with significant responsibilities for striking the appropriate balance between defending individual rights and unfettered access to government records, on the one hand, and defending at the same time legitimate assertions of government authority to withhold some records—whether on national security or privacy grounds.

As the National Archives enters its 75th year, its fundamental obligation and most demanding task remains “striking the appropriate balance” between protecting citizens’ access rights, while defending the protection of our sensitive records.

The poet Marianne Moore once described this balance as portraying imaginary gardens with real toads in them—imaginary gardens in which fear- mongers once identified thousands of communist spies, and now, as ephemerally, a comparable imaginary garden filled with Islamic terrorists. However, only a far smaller number of identifiable “real toads” have apparently been at work in fact—perpetrating genuine mischief against the American republic, and many of these home-grown to boot.

Before taking my leave, one final reminder about which—if I am not mistaken—I have spoken before to this group: “The six phases of a project.” It is fitting to describe it again because it fits the projects that have preoccupied me as Archivist of the United States:

Phase one: Enthusiasm

Phase two: Disillusionment

Phase three: Panic

Phase four: Search for the guilty

Phase five: Punishment of the innocent

Phase six: Praise and honors for the non-participants.

At the moment I dangle perilously between phases four and five: searching for the guilty and punishing the innocent. Wish me luck.

The work continues . . . .