Welcome Remarks Freedom of Information Act Advisory Committee (June 2021)
Good morning and welcome to the fourth meeting of the 2020 to 2022 term of the federal Freedom of Information Act Advisory Committee.
I join you from the ancestral lands of the Nacotchtank peoples, which today is home to the flagship building of the National Archives in Washington, DC.
June marks several important historical moments in our rich American history but there are two events that bear mentioning today.
The first is June 19, 1865—two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation—when Union troops announced that an estimated 250,000 enslaved Black Americans in Texas were free by executive decree. Among the holdings of the National Archives that have been digitized for online viewing is that decree, General Order Number 3, read by Major General Gordon Granger to the people of Galveston.
June 19—or Juneteenth—celebrating the emancipation of remaining enslaved Black Americans in Texas reminds us that Black Americans helped build our great nation even when rights and liberties were denied to them. Last year’s national reckoning with issues of racial equity elevated this important June commemoration in our country’s historical consciousness.
As part of that reckoning at the National Archives, late last year I convened a Task Force on Racism and tasked it with identifying and recommending solutions to issues—both explicit and implicit—stemming from structural racism within the agency. I look forward to sharing more about the task force’s work in the coming months.
June 19 also is of particular significance to the National Archives as it was on that day in 1934 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the law establishing the National Archives to centralize federal recordkeeping.
The National Archives Act called for “all archives or records” of the U.S. Government, legislative, executive or judicial to be under the charge of the Archivist of the United States. Workers from the Works Progress Administration, a Roosevelt New Deal agency, surveyed federal records nationwide, locating them in basements, attics, carriage houses, abandoned buildings and alcoves with little security or regard for storage conditions.
Today, the National Archives encompasses a nationwide network of Federal Records Centers and presidential museums and libraries in 16 states and the District of Columbia. Like so many other historical and cultural institutions around the world, National Archives facilities have been physically shuttered by the pandemic for more than a year.
While we have continued to Make Access Happen in virtual spaces throughout the pandemic, all National Archives facilities are in some phase of re-opening. We recently launched a pilot program to test bringing researchers back into the National Archives research rooms. And I am pleased that the Rotunda of the National Archives Building here in Washington, DC, as well as five Presidential Library museums are open with limited capacity on select days. If local public health metrics remain below target for safe re-opening, the Rotunda also will be open on Monday July 5th for the July 4th holiday weekend. Please visit archives dot gov for more information.
FOIA Advisory Committee members: as we recall the founding of the National Archives as our nation’s record keeper, I look forward to a bright future, including your work in the federal FOIA space. I understand that for the first time since the Committee’s establishment in 2014, you all will formally consider a recommendation less than one year into your term.
I appreciate your work on a recommendation regarding public access to legislative branch records, a timely topic. Public access to government records in all branches of government strengthens democracy by allowing Americans to claim their rights of citizenship, hold their government accountable, and understand their history so they can participate more effectively in their government.
Finally, the approach of the summer solstice and the long hours of daylight remind us that the long dark winter of the pandemic will someday be behind us. As we emerge from these pandemic times, please continue to take good care and stay safe.
I now turn the meeting over to the Committee’s Chairperson, Alina Semo.