About the National Archives

Archivist's Remarks to the Society of Cincinnati, Georgia Chapter

February 21, 2015

Who is the Archivist?

David S. Ferriero

David S. Ferriero The Archivist of the United States is the head of our agency, appointed by the President of the United States.

The AOTUS Blog
What's an Archivist?

Thank you for those kind words, Leland.  I'm honored to be with you this evening to share with you the history of the Presidential Library system.  Let me start by putting that system in context--some background about where I work.

Thomas Jefferson said, "Information is the currency of democracy." Simply put the National Archives and Records Administration is the keeper of one of the most important parts of that currency, the records created by the United States Government.

President Roosevelt signed legislation creating the National Archives on June 19, 1934, even as our main building was still under construction along Pennsylvania Avenue in downtown Washington. As the building took shape—and even before the first Archivist of the United States was on the job—both the architect and the archivist within Franklin Roosevelt emerged. He involved himself in plans for the building and for the records that would fill it.

When the Archives began, the challenge was just finding the records. Here's an account of what the first archivist, Robert D. W. Connor, confronted: valuable records … were found in a depository … piled on dust-covered shelves mingled higgledy-piggledy with empty whisky bottles and with rags and other highly inflammable trash. In another Washington depository … the most prominent object which meets the eye as one enters the room is the skull of a cat protruding from under a pile of valuable records.

When we opened our doors in 1935, our mission was to collect, protect, and encourage the use of the records of the U.S. Government. And, most importantly, to make the records available so that the American public can hold its government accountable and learn from our past. We are the final destination of the most important records of the United States Government—that one to three percent deemed by departments and agencies to be important enough for permanent preservation. We are responsible for the records of 275 Executive Branch agencies and departments, the White House, and the Supreme Court. We also provide courtesy storage for the records of Congress.

In 1955 the sheer volume of government records seemed to be the biggest challenge. Archivist Wayne Grover seemed overwhelmed. "It is almost inconceivable," he said, "that the federal government, in the 22 years from 1930 to 1952, should have created more than seven times as many records as it did during its previous 155 years of history."

Our records start with the Oaths of Allegiance signed by George Washington and his troops at Valley Forge and go all the way up to the Tweets that are being created at the White House as I am speaking this evening. It is a collection of 12 billion pieces of paper and parchment (1.5 Million trees, circles the globe 84 times), 40 million photographs, miles and mi les of film and video, and more than 5 billion electronic records—the fastest growing record form. These are not static numbers:  every day we take in––or accession––more records and we estimate the textual records grow by half a billion records each year.

Today, we have 3,000 employees in 44 facilities across the country. One of our busiest facilities is the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, which houses records of some 56 million veterans as well as the records of former civilian employees. We have facilities stretched across the country from Seattle to Atlanta.  We have three facilities here in the great state of Georgia:  the Atlanta Federal Records Center, the National Archives at Atlanta, and the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library. 

The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library is part of our Presidential Library System. The Presidential Library concept began in 1939, as Franklin Roosevelt was preparing to retire to Hyde Park at the end of his second term. He decided there should be a library to house the records of his two terms in office, so he created a Presidential library—in Hyde Park on land he donated to the government for that purpose.

FDR's library was the first of the federally operated Presidential libraries, and he spent many hours working in it after it opened in 1941. Roosevelt is the only President to have his presidential library operating while he was still in office, during his third and fourth terms.

We now have a system composed of 13 libraries from Herbert Hoover to George W. Bush. Be aware that these are not "libraries" in the usual sense of the word, but rather repositories for the papers and historical materials of U.S. Presidents.

The intent from the beginning was to have the Presidential Libraries throughout the country where scholars and school children could learn about their government, the Presidency, and service in government. In dedicating his own library FDR captured the essence of the mission:

"The dedication of a library is in itself an act of faith.  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 so to learn from the past that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future."

Following the example of the Roosevelt Library, all succeeding libraries have been constructed with private funds or funds from non-Federal agencies. A private, non-profit organization is formed to coordinate these efforts and continues to provide support for library programs. Once the library is constructed, the National Archives assumes responsibility for its operation and maintenance, in accordance with the Presidential Libraries' Acts of 1955 and 1986

When you visit the libraries, you will be astounded at the scope and amount of records.   The 13 libraries have more than 780m pages of textual materials and 625,000 museum objects. Electronic records––emails to be specific––have seen tremendous growth through the recent administrations. 
We started collecting email during the Ronald Reagan administration. Between Reagan and Bush 41 we have 2.5 million email messages. 20 million from the Clinton White House.  210 million from Bush 43. And recently the Obama administration surpassed 1 billion emails. 

The most important historical materials in each Presidential Library are the White House files. These records are created by the President and his staff in the course of performing their official duties. All major issues of public policy are covered in these documents.

In addition to the White House files, other significant holdings include the personal papers and historical materials donated by individuals closely associated with the President. These may include cabinet officials, envoys to foreign governments, personal advisors, political party associates, and the President's family and personal friends.

A third body of historical materials held by each Library is the personal materials accumulated by the President before, during, and after, his Presidency. These include items such as the records of Herbert Hoover as Secretary of Commerce, documents chronicling Franklin Roosevelt's tenure as Governor of New York, and information on Dwight Eisenhower's military career. The Truman, Johnson, Ford, and Bush Libraries also hold materials detailing their terms as a Member of Congress and, later, as Vice President of the United States.

Other types of records supplement the textual materials in the Presidential Libraries.   Included are audiotapes of conversations and meetings of some of the Presidents.  Photographs and films taken by White House photographers provide not only a record of major events of the administration, but a candid view of the President and his family. Several libraries have undertaken oral history programs which have produced invaluable tape-recorded memoirs of individuals associated with the President and his administration.

The libraries also have custody of museum objects or artifacts. These include family heirlooms, items collected by the President or his family, campaign memorabilia, awards, and the many gifts given to the President by American citizens and foreign dignitaries. The latter range from homemade crafted items to ornate jewelry to finely executed works of art.

These varied holdings make each Presidential Library a center for research on the President and his era––a rich source of information on all aspects of the Presidency in recent American history.
Several libraries are located near the site of the President's home and other Presidential landmarks. Herbert Hoover's birthplace cottage, the Quaker meeting house where his family worshiped, and the blacksmith shop owned by his father are easily accessible to visitors to the Hoover Library. President Roosevelt's Hyde Park home and his grave are adjacent to the Roosevelt Library, while the Truman home is down the street from the Truman Library.  At the Eisenhower Library, visitors can see the President's boyhood home and the site where he and Mrs. Eisenhower are buried. President Kennedy's birthplace is half an hour's drive from the Kennedy Library; and the Johnson birthplace and boyhood home, as well as the Johnson Ranch, are an hour's drive from the Johnson Library.

Access to records is a key component of our mission and the dedicated archivists, museum curators and education specialists in each of the libraries succeed in making records matter…
On December 4, 2013, the Roosevelt Library's online virtual research room called FRANKLIN was launched with 350,000 pages of archival documents and 2,000 historical photographs, along with many detailed descriptions of archival collections not yet digitized. Users can search the digital collections by keyword or go directly browse the full lists of digitized archival folders in a virtual research room environment.

Documents include Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt's New Deal and wartime correspondence with world leaders, government administrators, and regular Americans. Photographs include public domain images of the Roosevelts throughout their respective lifetimes, as well as subject areas like the Great Depression, New Deal, and World War II. 

In addition to making these materials available for the widest possible use by researchers, the staff of the Presidential Libraries engage the public with a variety of public programs designed to give visitors a better understanding of the President, the institution of the Presidency, and the American political system.

For three days in April last year, the LBJ Presidential Library hosted a Civil Rights Summit to mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The Summit, comprised of afternoon panel discussions followed by evening keynote addresses, reflected on the seminal nature of the civil rights legislation passed by President Johnson while examining civil rights issues in America and around the world today.

The Summit was covered by many major news outlets, including CBS, Yahoo!, ABC, USA Today, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and NPR. Speakers at the summit included former Presidents: Jimmy Carter, William J. Clinton, and George W. Bush. President Barack Obama delivered the keynote address.

Library staff dedicated significant time and preparation to ensuring the smooth rollout of the digital site to complement the Summit.  The website, civilrightssummit.org, featured live streaming of many of the events during the three-day commemoration of the signing of the Civil Rights Act fifty years ago.  Our staff also posted daily and monitored comments about the Summit on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.

Throughout the presidential library system, we seek to educate and to inspire. We believe that from civic understanding comes civic engagement, and the National Archives is proud to be part of that important effort. 

This past July the Carter Library presented a very successful and in-depth Summer Seminar on "The Geography of Liberty:  From Civil War to Civil Rights" for 16 teachers over 5 days. It was co-sponsored by the Atlanta Cyclorama and included a fieldtrip to the new National Center for Civil and Human Rights.  We worked with institutions such as the African American Civil War Freedom Foundation and Museum to enhance the seminar. NARA staff conducted sessions on archival research and using primary resource material at the Carter Library.

The treasures preserved within the walls of the presidential libraries across the nation are remarkable. The presidential library system is something that is truly priceless.  Our museum exhibits present significant documents, photographs, films, videotapes, sound recordings, and memorabilia that depict the stages of the President's life, the important policy decisions of his Presidential administration, and the various world and national events that occurred during his term. Traveling exhibits also bring programs from museums around the country to the individual libraries, providing information on various historical and social topics.

Last year, the temporary exhibition "Spies, Lies, and Paranoia:  Americans in Fear" opened at the Truman Library. The exhibition, designed and fabricated by the Library staff, featured spy gadgets, documents and artifacts relating to spies, material on the "witch hunts" of the late 1940s and 1950s, and many other materials. It also had numerous interactive units for visitors to decipher codes, identify real spies, and answer riddles about the period.  A reception on March 20 featured Gary Powers, Jr., the son of Francis Gary Powers who was shot down in a U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union in May 1960.

The staffs of each Library work with educators in nearby communities to foster the use of source materials by students at local schools and colleges. Library conferences and symposiums examine a variety of topics, ranging from public affairs and domestic policy, to foreign affairs and world wars. Each Library also serves to educate the general public by sponsoring lecture and film series on topics of historical or current interest.

The jewels in the crown of our education programs are the "decision center" activities aimed especially at the K-12 community where students and get to simulate the decision making process of the White House.  Each of the 13 sites has created an opportunity to learn how the government works by involving students in simulated experiences using information available to the original decision makers. At the Truman Library, for instance, participants assume the role of Cabinet members, using facsimiles of documents used by members of the Truman Administration in dealing with such issues as ending the war with Japan, addressing postwar civil rights in the Armed Forces, and responding to the Communist invasion of South Korea.  At the George W. Bush library a Decision Points Theater and high-tech interactive allows you to make your own choice of action on a range of real life issues like the invasion of Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, and dealing with a failing economy.  The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library's Discovery Center involves participants in the decision making around the invasion of Grenada.       

So, as you can see at each of the libraries and at the National Archives as a whole, history comes to life; we house the tangible reminders of where we have been, how far we have come, and what is possible for each and every American.

Each record, large or small, is a representation of a greater story, many of which are still being told today in daily life. The National Archives tells everyone's story.