About the National Archives

Remarks for State Department, National Association of Elementary School Principals Event

Rotunda, National Archives Building, Washington DC
October 6, 2016


Thank you, Steven.  Good evening everyone, and welcome to my house!

There is no better place to celebrate the achievements of educators than right here in front of the Charters of Freedom. Behind me is the Constitution, which is the basis on which the U.S. Government is structured. The Preamble contains three important words: “We, The People.” That brief phrase captures the essence of our democracy. The Constitution gives the power to the people.  

Over to my right is the Declaration of Independence, the parchment that our Founding Fathers signed in 1776 in Philadelphia setting us free from England. It took courage for them to sign it. They risked their lives, their families’ lives, and all they owned. We have them to thank for the freedoms we enjoy today.

And to my left is the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. These first 10 spell out the basic personal rights and freedoms that are guaranteed to every American. They include freedom of speech, religion, and the press; the right to petition the government; the right to bear arms; and the right to due process of law and a speedy and fair trial.

These documents, these Charters of Freedom, make up our foundation as U.S. citizens.  And over one million visitors each year come to this Rotunda to see the very pen strokes of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights from more than 200 years ago.

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—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.

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 includes the General Records of the State Department and the Records of the Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State. 

It is a collection of 13 billion pieces of paper and parchment, 43 million photographs, miles and miles 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.  We are a nationwide network of 39 facilities including federal records centers––including three caves!–– and regional archives, and Presidential Libraries from Herbert Hoover to George W. Bush.

I encourage you to enjoy touring this Rotunda,  our permanent exhibit called “The Public Vaults” and our newest exhibit in the O’Brien Gallery titled “Amending America,” which explores how our Constitution has been amended—or not—over the course of our nation’s history. When I first heard of this exhibit, I was astonished to learn that there have been more than 11,000 amendments proposed to the Constitution. Some narrowly missed ratification; others never had a realistic chance.

We have long invited citizens to practice civic understanding and exploration through America's historical documents.  Our education and public programs emphasize the importance of education, civic literacy, and student engagement. 

For decades, the education program at the National Archives has been putting primary source documents into the hands of educators around the nation to inspire, intrigue, and motivate students.  For the past 6 years DocsTeach.org gives teachers the opportunity to engage their students through primary sources.  Our site invites you to bring history to life for your students and gives you a powerful set of tools you can use to create rich, interactive online learning activities.  From the home page, you can search for activities ready to use in the classroom, begin to explore the thousands of documents featured from the holdings of the National Archives, or even create your own fun and engaging activities.

We also offer Primarily Teaching, an annual week long workshop centered around using historical documents in the classroom. You will learn about the tools and techniques to identify primary sources related to the National History Day theme in our main online catalog. We will add your discoveries to DocsTeach.org and you will create a DocsTeach learning activity.  Besides offering this on site program here and at select regional archives and presidential libraries, Primarily Teaching is now offered in the form of eight live webinars, for free.  

You can visit the National Archives without leaving your school or home through our professional development webinars. Our interactive webinars feature historical documents, images, maps, posters, and other primary sources. This year’s topics include “Bill of Rights Resources on the National Archives Websites and Beyond,” “Meet Founders Online,” and “The Bull of Rights from African-American, Asian-American, and Native-American Points of View.”   

For those of you involved with National History Day, you can learn about resources for projects and primary source research from the National Archives and our partner organizations, the theme and categories, using primary and secondary sources effectively, and teaching tools for NHD through our workshops offered online and in person at this building, at NARA-Philadelphia, and at the Hoover Presidential Library.

And in a similar vein, you and your students can visit the Archives online as we host free distance learning opportunities like “Our classroom Bill of Rights!” for Lower Elementary students, “Superhero Bill of Rights!” for upper elementary, “The Bill of Rights in Real Life” for middle schoolers, and “Know your Rights!” for high schoolers.

If you want a memorable field day, I invite you and your students to participate in hands-on document-based programs and visit our exhibitions here in DC, Atlanta, New York, Philadelphia, Seattle, and at our 13 Presidential Libraries.     

The Presidential Libraries are a uniquely American phenomenon—a partnership of the Federal Government, a private foundation, and the President's family—working together to preserve the legacy of the President and his administration and to educate, inspire, and entertain.  For example, Harry S. Truman’s White House Decision Center is a nationally recognized hands-on history lab where participants step into the roles of President Truman and his advisors, work with formerly classified primary source documents, and collaborate to tackle some of history’s greatest challenges.  The Eisenhower Library has a similar program titled “Five Star Leaders” and the Reagan and George W. Bush Library partner to offer the “Situation Room Experience”.  In this case, classmates will take on the parts of key news media members scrambling to cover the story as it unfolds before them. Participating students must work together in a high stakes environment to examine a multitude critical sources and make important decisions about developing events.

Have you ever wondered what happens in a museum after the building closes and the lights go out? Now’s your chance!  In two weeks we host another sleep over for children ages 8 to 12.   Children and their lucky chaperones can spend the night next to these Charters of Freedom, but not before becoming superhero citizens, meeting heroes from history, and learning the power and responsibility of government and its citizens. And that morning I flip pancakes for everyone!

At the National Archives, history comes to life through our documents. Each record, large or small, is a representation of a greater story, many of which are still being told today in daily life.

Again, welcome to the National Archives, and thanks for choosing our historic building for your event this evening.