Prologue Magazine

The Public Vaults Offer an Exciting Journey through American Records

Winter 2004, Vol. 36, No. 4

John W. Carlin

Archivist of the United States


National Archives: The Public Vaults, Unlocked 11.12.04

For more than a half-century, millions of Americans have made a pilgrimage to the National Archives to see the parchment documents that asserted our nation's independence, created our democratic government, and guaranteed our individual rights.

These visitors could stand in awe of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights—known collectively as the Charters of Freedom—the same documents, the very ones, signed by men named Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, and Madison.

But when these visitors left our building, they could take little with them. They left without any knowledge of the revolutionary times that produced these documents. They left without any appreciation of the importance of records in a democracy. They left without understanding the role of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). They left not knowing they were just a few steps from millions of records that tell the story of America and, possibly, their own family.

Now, with the opening of an exciting, innovative exhibition, a visit to the National Archives will be more rewarding, more memorable, and even more entertaining. We will take you beyond the Charters, beyond our walls and into our stacks and vaults to see for yourself the many records—some very famous, others quite obscure—that have nurtured and shaped our nation.

Welcome to our Public Vaults, which opened in November. One of the major components of our National Archives Experience, the Public Vaults is an interactive permanent exhibition that transports you into the world of records and the heart of our government. This new exhibition, complete with electronic tools that allow you to explore records in detail, is made possible in large part by the generous support of the Foundation for the National Archives.

The Public Vaults display at any given time about 1,100 records—originals or facsimiles of documents, photographs, maps, drawings, and film or audio clips, allowing you to see the raw materials of our American democracy. Documents range from important treaties and legislation dealing with grave matters of state to snippets of the fascinating stories of individual citizens, such as letters to the President and citations for military bravery.

Each of the Public Vaults draws its themes from words in the Preamble to the Constitution.

"We the People" focuses on family and citizenship. Here, you'll learn that the National Archives has records about not only important and famous people but also us ordinary Americans. In this vault, you might help someone establish U.S. citizenship or learn how to research your own family history through documents such as immigration records, naturalization papers, census schedules, draft cards, and homestead applications. You'll also explore records about Native Americans, early settlers from Europe, people who instantly became Americans when their region was annexed, and freed slaves during Reconstruction.

"To Form a More Perfect Union" highlights records of liberty and law that illustrate the evolution of our democracy. In this vault, you can hear congressional debates on Prohibition in 1918 and reinstating the draft in 1940. You can also see materials and evidence preserved from famous investigations, such as those on unidentified flying objects, the Kennedy assassination, the Kent State shootings, and Watergate.

"Promote the General Welfare" emphasizes records of firsts and frontiers and shows how the human spirit and ingenuity helped to realize many of the promises of America as envisioned by our Founders. An exhibit called "July 20, 1969" transports you back to the day man first landed on the moon. You'll also be invited to identify original patent drawings for such things as the typewriter, the pencil, and the phonograph.

"Provide for the Common Defense" is about wars and diplomacy. Records from the Revolutionary War through the Persian Gulf War paint a vivid picture of heroism, inspiration, and sacrifice over the decades. You can explore the Civil War records of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, an African American unit, and compare the records to the unit's portrayal in the 1989 movie Glory. Or you can listen to parts of the actual conversations that took place in the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

"To Ourselves and Our Posterity" focuses on the National Archives' role in keeping our records for future generations. Here, you can see how a government document becomes a record at NARA and learn how to care for your own family records. Here, you can learn that if you want to do research at NARA, you don't have to come to Washington because NARA is all across America, with seventeen regional records services facilities, eleven presidential libraries, and the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. And here, you can learn of the challenges NARA as an agency and we as a society face in preserving the electronic records of our government.

Connecting our Public Vaults is a corridor we call the Record of America, which takes you on a journey through time and technology to see how records have evolved, from our earliest treaties with Native Americans to the first presidential web site.

With the strong and steady support of the Foundation, we are now able to have in a permanent exhibit so many more of the records that document the rights of our citizens, the actions of our government officials, and our national experience.

Our records are used every day by researchers, filmmakers, students, teachers, veterans, lawyers, historians, journalists, and genealogists. Now, you too can work with film, investigate government actions, explore your country's story, or learn to research your own history—all in the Public Vaults.

I encourage you to visit the Public Vaults and the other components of our National Archives Experience at the National Archives Building in Washington and leave entertained, enriched, and enlightened. The images and records you will see in the exhibit are all available in our Archival Research Catalog on our web site at For those of you who cannot visit us, we are developing an online version of the Public Vaults.

At the National Archives, we know "records matter." Our new Public Vaults will show you why.


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.