Becoming World Class
Summer 2009, Vol. 41, No. 2
By Adrienne Thomas
Acting Archivist of the United States
I’ve been working at the National Archives for 39 years–long enough to see our mission evolve, the way we do our work change, and a great many colleagues come and go. It strikes me, however, that as much as things may have changed, the purpose of our work, and the passion and commitment with which this work is carried out, remains unchanged over the years.
Rick Blondo, a colleague of mine for almost 20 years, describes his job this way "One feels part of the flow of history, safeguarding the past for the present and future use. That is the privilege of being an archivist."
And it is a privilege for me to work with the talented and dedicated staff of the National Archives and Records Administration.
When I first came to the National Archives in May of 1970, we were still part of the General Services Administration (GSA)–and thought of mainly as a housekeeping agency charged with storing and managing the government’s records, displaying the Charters of Freedom, and little else. Exhibition space and space for storing records was very limited.
Inside the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., most archivists spent their days working in the stacks. Lone lightbulbs cast a spooky glare, while old rotary dial phones sat atop metal desks.
In the early 1980s, Archivist of the United States Bob Warner, along with a small band of dedicated supporters, worked for four years to gain NARA’s status as an independent agency in 1985. This was not the first attempt to restore the National Archives’ independence. Other dedicated Archives leaders with help from outside supporters had tried. But this time the political stars aligned, and the effort was successful. Being an independent agency freed us from the structures and priorities of the GSA and allowed us to chart our own future, opening the door for many of the changes that shaped the National Archives of today. In the last two decades we’ve built the National Archives at College Park, today one of the world’s most modern archival facilities. We gave the National Archives Building its first–ever top–to–bottom renovation, and now this stately building boasts a world–class museum, a research facility without equal, and a unique education component.
We’ve gone from an agency primarily concerned with storing paper records to spearheading solutions to the challenges of preserving and providing access to electronic records. But perhaps most important, our staff around the country has worked to bring our holdings–and the stories they tell–to the American people. Our education programs in Washington, D.C., and at our regional facilities and presidential libraries, help teachers and students appreciate the documents we hold and their relevance to our democracy. Historians, archivists, and genealogists look to us for leadership and provide invaluable support for the causes of openness and access that we champion. Our web site provides access to our exhibits and to the records we hold nationwide.
Our staff around the country sets the bar higher and higher for itself with its superb customer service and encyclopedic knowledge of our records. As Archivist Claire Prechtel–Kluskens said, "To create a legacy of products useful for generations of researchers to come, I have striven to practice the art of the possible, and to be persistent, resilient, and not accept ’no’ for an answer." We are celebrating more this year than simply the fact that the National Archives has existed for 75 years. We are celebrating our role in our nation’s democracy–a role built on ensuring that the citizens of our country are free to inspect, use, and learn from the records of the government. Since 1934, thousands of staff members in Washington, D.C., and in presidential libraries, regional archives, and records centers across the country have worked to keep the holdings that document our history, our rights, and our entitlements safe and accessible for future generations.
The dedication of the staff to the mission of the National Archives is the rock on which the success of the agency has been built. Their loyalty, creativity, and hard work have shaped a strong institution capable of dynamic change, growth, and continuing public service. When it comes to the staff of the National Archives, I can truly say, "The Past is Prologue."