About the National Archives

Remarks as Delivered by Archivist of the United States Dr. Colleen Shogan at her Swearing-in Ceremony

Thank you, Dr. Biden, Chief Justice Roberts, Members of Congress, my family members,  distinguished guests, the National Archives Foundation, and the dedicated staff of the National  Archives. 

Today, as we gather in this Rotunda, we remember and honor the lives lost on September 11th, a  solemn reminder of our resilience as a nation and the enduring power of unity and compassion. 

Everyone here today has played a role in supporting me and the National Archives, and I  appreciate each of you for your friendship and support. 

It is the honor of a lifetime to serve as the 11th Archivist of the United States. It’s not lost on me  today that I am the first woman appointed to serve in this role. You might have guessed that  matters to me by what I’m wearing. 

I wore white today to recognize those who made it possible for me to stand here today and take  this oath. The suffragists didn’t sign the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, so they  aren’t on these murals. But their contribution to the vitality of our democracy is no less  meaningful. 

Along with many other inspiring leaders in American history, they believed in the principles  enshrined in these documents, and claimed them as their God-given, natural rights. The  fulfillment of those rights, which continues today, is why these documents aren’t simply pieces  of parchment. They are living promises to hold our government accountable. 

Why is accountability important in a democracy? It’s a fair question. Shouldn’t we expect our  government to do the right thing and to make decisions to promote the common good? The  answer is yes, but it is important to remember that representative democracies require hard work,  not just from politicians, but from every citizen.

At the end of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, a woman asked Ben Franklin if the  proposed government would result in a republic or a monarchy. Dr. Franklin famously replied,  “A republic, if you can keep it.” 

Franklin’s quip packs a punch. Any government which derives its just powers from the people  requires eternal vigilance, engagement, and knowledge. 

After all, the prevalent condition in human history is not democracy or rights-based government.  Rather, the default is autocracy and tyranny, where might makes right, with little regard to  individual freedom or the pursuit of happiness. 

What prevents us from falling back into the classic pattern of authoritarianism is our right – our  responsibility – to hold our government accountable. That’s what makes the National Archives  so important. Without the National Archives and the continued fulfillment of its mission, a  healthy democracy cannot be sustained. 

Our task is straightforward, but it grows in complexity every day. The National Archives  preserves, protects, and shares the billions of records in its custody with the citizens of this great  nation. We do this to cultivate public participation and strengthen our democracy. 

To meet the evolving requirements of that mission, the National Archives will need to transform  itself for the digital age. 

Change is never easy, especially for an organization rightly steeped in history and tradition. But  as a political scientist, I know that critical inflection points in the long trajectory of an institution  are almost always moments of unprecedented opportunity. 

We will need to embrace technology to meet our mission in ways that might make us  uncomfortable at times. New ways of doing things will challenge our second-nature habits and  processes. 

But if we are going to succeed, we must move forward boldly. Timidity will not be our friend as  records continue to proliferate at exponential rates. 

The National Archives can collect, digitize, and preserve, but without enhancing how we share  the records – the papers, the pictures, the emails and films – then, I ask you, what’s the point? In  new and creative ways, we will share the records of the National Archives with as many  Americans as possible. 

I want all citizens to find a connection with history at the National Archives– whether it’s a  personal, scholarly, genealogical, or creative endeavor, all should feel welcome here! I want as  many Americans as possible to visit us in person – here in the Rotunda or at one of the many  National Archives facilities across the country. 

And for those who can’t come to us, I want to take the National Archives to them – online and  around the United States.

We also have a special obligation to help kids who are learning about American history and  civics. In this respect, our nation’s report card is deficient. The National Archives should be a  first stop for all teachers and students, and we will double-down on creating useful, engaging  materials for the classroom. 

Understanding American history and government shouldn’t be treated as an afterthought. An  engaged and informed citizenry is a critical prerequisite for the health of our democracy, and we  need to treat it as such. 

These are not ordinary times in our nation’s history. We are faced with fundamental questions  about how to think critically about our shared past. Debate about these interpretations can  invigorate our democratic institutions, if executed respectfully and rationally. 

However, let us not forget our North Star, which guides us in our spirited exchanges. This, of  course, is the Declaration of Independence, which I try to visit every day I work in this building.  It contains perhaps the most audacious statement in the history of the world – that “all men are  created equal.” 

Although this truth is self-evident, we know from our almost two hundred and fifty years of  American history that it is not self-executing. It’s our job, collectively, to uphold these principles  and protect them. I invite all Americans to join me in this critical task. 

Thank you again for being here today. I look forward to working with all of you to ensure we  meet our obligation to the nation.