State of the Archives Address, 2008
Address to the Staff of the National Archives and Records Administration
By Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States
December 4, 2008, College Park, Maryland
I begin with a few personal recollections. I first encountered the National Archives as a researcher seeking historical materials for a Ph.D. dissertation. Then, in the 1970s, I worked on various committees of historians and archivists intent on strengthening the Freedom of Information Act, then in its infancy. Later, as a Washington Post editorial writer, I urged independent status for the Archives. And even later, I was involved in several public programs at the Archives focused on American history.
It was clear to me then, as it is clear today, that the primary mission of the National Archives is to safeguard and provide maximum accessibility to the precious documents and records of the three branches of the Federal Government. I never dreamed that I would stand here today, as Archivist of the United States, speaking to the thousands of employees who make it possible, day in and day out, for the National Archives to perform that mission. For all that has been achieved, congratulations to us all!
We meet today at a special moment in American history: The beginning of a new Presidency and a new Congress, and confronting arguably the most complex set of domestic crises since the Great Depression, while at the same time trying to end a pair of difficult foreign conflicts.
As we prepare to address the challenges and the opportunities of the 21st century, we might want to reflect on how the National Archives, established only in 1934, brought a measure of order out of chaos to the public records of the Federal Government accumulated over the first century and a half of this nation’s existence.
And during the last quarter-century, since the National Archives regained independence in 1985, we have taken NARA into new areas:
- We gave Archives I [the National Archives Building in downtown Washington] its first ever top-to-bottom renovation and built a new archival facility in College Park that is now considered the gold standard among archives.
- We also built, or moved to, new state-of-the-art facilities around the country to house regional archives, and the Presidential library system grew to include every chief executive from Hoover to Clinton.
- We embarked on major education and civic literacy programs.
- We turned the National Archives Building on the National Mall into a major innovative museum destination that adds interest for the 1 million-plus annual visitors beyond a once-in-a-lifetime view of the Charters of Freedom.
- We developed a set of standards for agencies and departments throughout the Federal Government to use in classifying and declassifying sensitive documents; we created records management standards for all Federal departments and agencies; and we began the work of preparing the Federal Government for the extraordinary growth of electronic records.
- We received valuable assistance from supporters who created a private Foundation for the National Archives, which raises funds from private donors to develop programs that cannot be funded with congressional appropriations.
In short, the story of the coming of age of the National Archives and of the people who have contributed their hard work, intellect, and ingenuity to the Archives is—above all—a monumental success story. It includes thousands of individuals—many now dead, others retired, and still others rounding out long careers—who have been NARA’s heart and soul.
I want to take the opportunity at today’s awards ceremony to acknowledge a very small fraction of the archives’ finest—and present—whose “legendary” achievements should not be forgotten. People such as. . .
Charles Mayn, by training an electrical engineer, who developed a machine that allowed easier transcription of Nuremberg trials material in the years after World War II—a machine still in use in our Special Media Preservation Laboratory—and
Mary Walton Livingston, a senior archivist in the Office of Presidential Libraries for more than 30 years, who identified for Congress the backdating of a donation of political documents that was done to seek an improper tax advantage for the former President in question—and
Earl Rengstorff and Lee Gary, employees at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, who designed and implemented, in the mid-1960s, the registry system, originally called the Earl Lee file, representing the first time technology was used on a large scale to track and retrieve individual personnel records—and
Elsie Freivogel Freeman, one-time director of academic, professional, and public programs, who played a pivotal role in the establishment of the “Teaching with Documents” and “Primarily Teaching” programs—and
John P. Butler and Frank Burke, who established one of the first NARA offices with the mission of devising and implementing projects using computer technology.
There are so many individuals who have shaped the National Archives as we know it today: Could we be more appreciative, for example, of these three “legendary” figures: former Archivist Robert Warner—"Battling Bob"—whose fierce and relentless struggle in the 1980s restored NARA’s status as an independent agency. Or John Taylor, for his 60-plus years of advising scholars on the use of historical and intelligence materials. Or Walter Hill, for his pioneering work bringing into the historical mainstream the African American historical documents to be found at the National Archives.
And what of today’s and tomorrow’s colleagues, who may rise to “legend” status by helping us meet the changes that await? Offhand, I can think of a number of major “musts” that concern us all and keep this Archivist awake at night, including the following:
We must continue to reduce the backlog of records—among the 10 billion pages of records in NARA’s custody—that have not been adequately processed and described—and avoid future backlogs. In the last two years, staff has processed a substantial amount of that backlog. I commend these individuals for their efforts and the accommodations they made to undertake this critical work.
We must push forward on the Electronic Records Archives (ERA) project, to preserve and make accessible electronic records into the future. And at the same time, we must continue to forge partnerships with both public and private organizations to digitize, and make available on the Internet, the traditional records that now can be viewed only in their original paper form or on microfilm.
We must provide a clear roadmap to all Federal agencies to ensure that only information genuinely requiring protection is classified and controlled, and then only for as long as absolutely necessary.
We must be alert to the condition of our traditional records and artifacts and provide preservation work as necessary to counteract natural deterioration.
We must find ways to maintain and strengthen the “human capital” that makes the National Archives what it is.
We have continued to experience a “brain drain,” the loss of experienced staff due to death, retirement, and resignation. However, we are now developing a Strategic Human Capital Plan that will, when implemented, allow us to maintain the level of expertise that we have always had.
Once again, let me mention some other National Archives “legends” responsible for that high level of expertise:
Michael McReynolds, the first director of the Center for Legislative Records, established the framework of the office and began the operations that are followed today by the staff of the center. He was instrumental in obtaining the funding for the first comprehensive guides to the records of the House of Representatives and the Senate—and
Gary Yarrington decided to change the exhibits at the Johnson Presidential Library in the early 1970s. Until then, exhibits in all the libraries were fairly static; they changed but only slowly, very slowly. Now, all the Presidential libraries have exhibits that change at regular intervals.
Although each Presidential library will undoubtedly display some compassionate perspective towards its subject, it is my responsibility to reinforce the honest representation of each former President and balance in that process.
Congress has requested a report on alternatives to the current Presidential library model, providing an opportunity for us to outline and review candidly the costs, funding, the biases and future directions of these institutions.
We must ensure proper classification and declassification of Government records.
We will strengthen our role in this area through the Information Security Oversight Office. Beginning this year, the National Archives now also oversees implementation of a recently announced, Government-wide framework for standardizing processes and procedures for what is often referred to as “sensitive but unclassified” information.
Allow me now to express gently a bit of pride over the accomplishments of this past year:
- The addition of the widely praised online “Digital Vaults” to our arsenal of education outreach programs.
- The flourishing of three partnerships to digitize and place online millions of our traditional records, especially those important to the genealogy community.
- The extensive preparations for the George W. Bush Presidential Library. We have staff already at work moving the Bush administration’s records to Dallas.
- The opening of many important documents, such as those dealing with OSS personnel, the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and additional records of the Richard Nixon Presidency.
- The initial launch of the ERA, dealing with the records of four Federal agencies. And ERA will soon take in the records of the Bush administration.
- The cost savings realized by encouraging energy conservation. For that, NARA recently won a Presidential award for leadership in Federal energy management.
- The start of an online public inspection desk by the Federal Register. Now, every Federal business day, anyone with access to a computer can read critical documents relating to business, health, and safety regulations as soon as they are placed on file.
- A broadening of the reach of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, our grant-making arm, which also observes its 75th anniversary next year. The commission is now working to speed up the process of placing on the Internet the papers of some of the most prominent of our Founding Fathers and the documentary history of the ratification of the Constitution.
- The return of the Magna Carta, now back on display just outside the Rotunda.
- A larger international role, especially those efforts to support archival cooperation in the Middle East and the expansion of our partnership with Library and Archives Canada.
- A greater profile in the national media as a result of our actions pertaining to access to sensitive records, our efforts at civic literacy, and our place as a unique source of the history of the country.
And, of course, one of the things that make the National Archives unique, in addition to our holdings, is our legendary staff. Here are three more outstanding examples:
Herbert Angel and Everett Alldredge put together the first full-scale Government-wide records management program, including records centers around the country. The first Federal records center was in Brooklyn, and other centers followed over the years, leading to a current network of 17 Federal records centers around the country—and
Forrest Weir saved the Federal Government tens of millions of dollars by providing expert advice on building construction, maintenance, and shelving. He had a long-term impact on the facilities, the costs paid by the Federal records centers, and improvements in fire safety.
It strikes me as appropriate for all of us to continue seeking from the Archives’ past and present those “legendary” colleagues whose leadership and excellence set them apart, only a small number having been mentioned in my talk today.
Surrounded by all of you talented people, this fledgling Archivist is reminded of a favorite story from the Revolution of 1848 in Paris:
The barricades had gone up, and the revolutionaries charged through the back alleys and cobblestone streets of the city, until one well-known figure looked around him and abruptly broke off a conversation, saying “excuse me, but those are my troops, and I am their leader. I must catch up to them.
I, too, must catch up and thank my troops for their unflagging support as we prepare for the Archives’ 75th anniversary celebrations. Thank you, senior and not-so-senior staff, archivists, records managers, and presidential library staff. Thank you Adrienne Thomas, Debra Wall, Donna Gold, Jackie Budell, Sam Anthony, Thedra Johnson, Mary DeGeorge, and who knows how many others. Thank you all.But until I catch up to all of you, and—for that matter—even after that, ladies and gentlemen of the National Archives, the work continues . . .