About the National Archives

Remarks by Professor Allen Weinstein

Archivist of the United States

March 7, 2005
Washington, DC

I want to begin by thanking Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for having taken the time from her Supreme Court schedule to officiate at my swearing in. I am humbled and grateful for her presence as I am by the presence here today of so many friends and family--beginning with my wife, Adrienne Dominguez.

My thanks also to colleagues at the National Archives and Records Administration for sharing this occasion with me, whether those here in the McGowan Auditorium, those elsewhere in the Washington area, or those at NARA installations throughout the country watching by webcast.

For the few Americans still a bit confused as to where the National Archives ends and the Library of Congress or the Smithsonian begins, a word of explanation: We at NARA administer not only this hallowed downtown Washington building containing (among other treasures) the three great charters of American freedom but also our state-of-the-art facility--Archives II--in nearby College Park, Maryland, where much of the nitty-gritty work of management, preservation, and program design occurs.

In addition, we administer the 11 Presidential libraries existing in the NARA system, 13 regional records centers and regional archives; we publish the Federal Register and supervise the work of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) and the Federal Government's Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO). The Foundation for the National Archives, which we thank for providing refreshments today, has brought private-sector participation and support to help develop a range of educational programming, including the wonderfully interactive Public Vaults exhibits.

Because of the effective efforts of over 3,000 NARA employees across the country, your ninth Archivist assumes leadership of a confident and vigorous independent agency. In this connection, I should acknowledge in this audience a number of important archivists and other dignitaries, many of whom have been helpful in introducing me to major issues and counseling me on current questions confronting NARA as I prepared--over the last nine months--to stand before you today:
Kathleen Roe, President, Council of State Historical Records Coordinators
Tim Slavin, State Archivist of Delaware and President, National Association of Government Archives & Record Administrators (NAGARA)
Randall Jimerson, President, Society of American Archivists
Nancy Beaumont, Executive Director, Society of American Archivists
Dr. Michael Devine, Executive Director, Harry S. Truman Presidential Library
Dr. Cathy Gorn, Executive Director, National History Day
Dr. Richard Baker, Historian of the U.S. Senate
The Honorable Emily Reynolds, Secretary of the U.S. Senate
Dr. David Carmichael, State Archivist of Georgia
Karl Niederer, State Archivist of New Jersey
Dr. Edward Papenfuse. State Archivist of Maryland
Dr. Bruce Craig, Director, National Coalition for History
Fred Ryan, Advisory Committee on Presidential Libraries
David McMillen, House Committee on Governmental Reform
Shirley Wilcox, National Genealogical Society
Reverend John Taylor, Executive Director, Nixon Presidential Library
Stephen Danzansky, former Executive Director, Mary Baker Eddy Library
The Honorable David H. Souter, Justice of the United States Supreme Court
Ambassador Max Kampelman
Ambassador Charles Manatt
Tom Wheeler, President, Foundation for the National Archives
Johanna Hardy, Esq., Counsel, U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs
The Honorable Luigi Einaudi, Acting Secretary General, the Organization of American States
The Honorable Leon Fuerth, George Washington University

I apologize in advance to those of you whose names or titles I have garbled, or whom in haste I have failed to recognize.

As we meet, I am beginning my 14th working day in office sworn in with the same Bible used by President Harry S. Truman to take the oath of office upon the death of President Franklin Roosevelt. Truman's reported cosmic comments that he felt "like the moon, the stars, and all the planets" had fallen on him certainly does not apply to someone who spent quiet months awaiting U.S. Senate confirmation. But, in a broader sense, all the successive Archivists--including this one--have confronted new and difficult challenges upon taking office for which no past experience could fully prepare them. Nor are they challenges addressed by the Archivist alone.

As I said in the first message I sent to NARA employees upon taking office on February 16: "This is a critical juncture for NARA. We live in a world of imperiled budgets, increasing dependence on electronic records and retrieval, unprecedented security and preservation concerns, and [profoundly] insufficient attention to civic and democratic education. To meet these and other challenges, we must work cooperatively and creatively."

In facing these challenges, I am comforted by remembering an old, if possibly apocryphal, story of a meeting between President Truman and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion. Truman rose to conclude the meeting, asserting in passing that he had the hardest job in the world as President of the world's largest democracy only to have Ben Gurion challenge him and explain to a puzzled American President that his job was harder: he was the Prime Minister of a million Prime Ministers. Relevance? I enter NARA's portals as one fledgling archivist among--if not a million, then--a large and talented community of archivists.

This spring we will celebrate, with appropriate programs on NARA's past, present, and future, the 20th anniversary of its status as an independent agency. Just as there were more democracies in the world when NARA achieved independence in 1985 than 40 years earlier when Truman took the Presidential oath, so are there a far greater number of democracies--actual and aspiring-- today than two decades earlier. Now, as then, ordinary people around the world have not only dreamed of but have fought for freedom, individual rights, and the rule of law.

What, some will ask, does this have to do with NARA's mission? A great deal, I would answer, now as then. When we at the National Archives and Records Administration honor our basic mission of preserving and assuring timely, maximum access to the American people of our governmental records, we help not only to defend the continuing liberties of our own citizens but we display for the entire world an essential component of a healthy democracy. Not the National Archivist alone but all who work for NARA are the designated custodians of America's national memory. Thus, when NARA hosts the International Council of Archives meeting in Washington, DC, next month, it will be playing not only an important technical role but a broadly philosophical role as well in welcoming colleagues from abroad.

Let me interject here an invitation to all leaders and, indeed, to all visitors from other countries stopping in Washington. We invite you to visit our downtown Archives building to view the three great charters of American freedom and experience the imaginative Public Vaults exhibits. I would argue that visiting Presidents and Prime Ministers, for example, stand a better chance of learning important things about American culture, traditions, and values with an hour or two spent at the National Archives than at most of our great neighboring museums. Our doors are open to all visitors, and we welcome you.

Those who have reviewed NARA's existing strategic plan or its annual reports and other internal documents know that the consumers of NARA's services are often referred to as "customers" or "stakeholders." In the years ahead, in addition to these designations, two others--"citizens" and "Americans"--will find their way into NARA's lexicon, for reasons I will discuss shortly.

First, however, let me mention briefly a major administrative challenge confronting us, the resolution of which will require attention and support not only from the entire NARA family but the broader American archival community: namely, the impending loss of critically experienced professional colleagues because of retirement or resignation. I acknowledge here also a related concern: the absence of close cooperation with NARA (our fault, not theirs) by state and other non-Federal archivist groups. To those archival leaders and activists in the states, localities, and private sector, I commit once again to an earlier promise. NARA's doors are now wide open to serious joint efforts on programs, training, and other areas of concern. Those doors will remain wide open. To those at NARA contemplating possible career changes, I ask you to defer your decision while closely watching the directions we will take at the agency in the months and years ahead. My personal pledge is to do everything I can to assure for all employees the most attractive working conditions possible in supporting NARA's uniquely talented band of archival brothers and sisters.

Which brings me to my next point, the formulation of which I owe to the eloquence of Lee Hamilton, Director of the Smithsonian's Woodrow Wilson Center, who reminded the audience at a recent conference on civic education of President Abraham Lincoln's wartime visit to a Washington church service. Retiring to the White House, Lincoln told a companion that he found the sermon's content excellent, the pastor's delivery eloquent, and his hard work evident. "Then you thought it was a great sermon?" Lincoln's response: "No." Why? Because the pastor had forgotten a sermon's most important ingredient: "He forgot to ask us to do something great."

Allow me to improve a bit on Lincoln's important insight by summoning the NARA family--with help from our friends in the broader archival community (customers, stakeholders, citizens and Americans all)--to commit to a total effort over the next half-decade (but please do not call this the Archivist's "Five Year Plan") to achieve at least two great goals simultaneously.

The first involves fulfillment of NARA's major electronics records initiatives, the Electronic Records Archive (ERA) but also the Electronic Records Management (ERM) initiative and related ones including the continued evolution of strategic directions for the Federal Records Management initiative. In short, let NARA assume its natural leadership role in the fulfillment of electronic archival and records management projects at this crucial moment in design of a Government-wide system. I call this entire effort NARA's pursuit of "inside greatness."

At the same time, let us pursue a profound, solemn commitment to the American people to create, expand, extend, and--where necessary--redesign educational and public programming throughout NARA's orbit, including the extension of the reach of the National Archives Experience through webcasting. This can be done while pursuing a greater number and variety of public and educational programs linked to school curricula where possible--and involving in implementation not only Washington, DC,'s educational resources but those of every NARA regional records center and archives center along with the extraordinary resources of the Presidential library system, in partnership where possible with state and local archivists as well--in short, "outside greatness."

Here in Washington, the Librarian of Congress and I have already begun preliminary discussions exploring prospects for new cooperative educational efforts (some of them "online") involving the extraordinary staff talents and documentary resources of both institutions. There will be a role for virtually every NARA employee in this expansion of our educational and public programming envisioned in the years ahead which, at the end of the day, will benefit greatly the American people--and NARA itself.

I would be remiss on this celebratory occasion in not pointing out the leading educational role over the past decades played by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), not only in making possible the definitive editions of the writings of the Founders and other great Americans but in decentralizing the distribution of recognition and reward among state and local archivists, historians, social scientists, and civic activists. In my personal view, the recent decision in the 2006 budget to de-fund and dismantle NHPRC was an unfortunate mistake. Most respectfully, I believe that sober second thought will lead the OMB, the White House, and the bipartisan leadership of Congress to reconsider this action and restore this vital program.

In the months ahead, I look forward to visting the full range of NARA facilities--including our often under-appreciated regional records centers and regional archives, along with that complex gemstone of the NARA family, the Presidential library system. One other urgent concern comes to mind as I reflect upon my travels to NARA facilities across the country, that of providing effective--but not excessive--post-9/11 security for all of NARA's documents, materials, and staff, whether in Washington, DC, or elsewhere in the country. I will be launching an early and thorough review of security issues, including the protection of NARA's documents and materials from loss, theft, and mishandling.

A word about civility. In my previous work both in this country and abroad--whether in developing the National Endowment for Democracy, managing The Center for Democracy for 18 years, or trying to help negotiate conflict resolution in Central America, the Philippines, or Southern Africa--I have tried to build consensus. Where that proved impossible, of course, I have been prepared to act decisively. Under my stewardship, NARA will remain absolutely nonpolitical and professional. Researchers will receive candid and courteous treatment at all times. Internal disagreements will be debated respectfully. In this regard, I follow the sage example of Ambassador Max Kampelman, who is in the audience and who--as Ambassador to the human rights-related Helsinki Review Conference in Madrid for five years during the 1980s--taught our then-Soviet adversaries how to disagree without being disagreeable.

Civility is crucial in our imperfect world if only to test on occasion the limits of knowledge. A story on this point, also perhaps apocryphal. During Lyndon Johnson's first day in Washington as a new member of the House of Representatives, he visited his mentor, Sam Rayburn, to explain how he intended to deal with his new Republican "enemies." Rayburn stopped Johnson in mid-sentence and reportedly said, "Lyndon, you have it all wrong. The Republicans are our adversaries. The Senate is our enemy." Fortunately, the National Archives and Records Administration has no enemies.

A word on access: mainly to reiterate what I stated at my Senate confirmation hearing and in written questions prior to and following that hearing. As Archivist, I will enforce the laws regarding access to public records at all times and instances to the very best of my ability. Where problems occur, it will be my intention to pursue solutions (through dialogue and persuasion if possible) at the earliest possible moment. As a "vision" statement on NARA's mission and purposes, drafted by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, reads:


A word on legacy. My predecessors in this post developed many of the achievements and programs which I am now privileged to help preserve and extend. I salute all my predecessors and their senior staffs, but we might focus for a moment on the most recent, post-independence ones, beginning with the last Archivist, Governor John Carlin, whose passion for addressing seemingly intractable electronic records issues has created for NARA a pioneering role in this far-from-resolved realm. Dr. Don Wilson, the seventh Archivist, brought to NARA a widely acknowledged humanity that informed his decision making. Before Don Wilson, of course, came Bob Warner, the Moses of the Archives' campaign for independence. In Bob's case, he reached the Promised Land. I thank them all and their predecessors.

Let me conclude on some personal notes. In the months to come, I look forward to meeting with and learning from many of you. For those so inclined, I have had a web site set up (Suggestions_for_the_Archivist) to receive and respond to your ideas. I return to my focus and goal of encouraging in the work of every NARA employee, myself included, a pursuit of either "inside" or "outside" greatness--or both.

My personal job description is transparent. The Archivist of the United States works for the American people, indifferent to partisanship regardless of which political party dominates the Congress or the Executive branch of government. Therefore, the Archivist must display at all times scrupulous independence and a devotion to the laws and principles governing the responsibilities of his office. At all times, he serves as the designated custodian of America's essential "records that defy the tooth of time."

Finally, a passion for working on archives or records management is obviously essential to performing NARA's mission successfully. I know that many NARA employees in this hall or participating via webcast share that passion. But it might help, also, as we pursue together the goal of making NARA greater through our efforts and assignments, if we ask ourselves the question, "What great principle or idea was it [quoting Abraham Lincoln] that [has] kept [the United States] so long together?" President Lincoln raised that question in an 1861 speech in Philadelphia's Independence Hall at arguably the Union's gravest moment of jeopardy. He concluded that it was "that sentiment in the Declaration of Independence which gave liberty not only for the people of this country but hope to all the world for all future time. It was that which gave promise [Lincoln believed] that in due time the weight would be lifted from the shoulders of all men and that all should have an equal chance. This is the sentiment embodied in the Declaration of Independence [he went on to note, and in an extraordinary final comment, Lincoln stated] I would rather be assassinated on this spot than surrender it."

The wellsprings of motivation in each of us are personal and complex, ranging from core values (and core documents) to traditions, moral and religious beliefs, and a concrete work ethic. But just as Lincoln used the Declaration of Independence in that 1861 speech to connect the dots of American identity, we at the National Archives and Records Administration have as our template not only the three great charters but the entire governmental documentary heritage (literally) at our fingertips. What an awesome privilege.

So I ask you to step back for a moment and ask yourself the same question that this newest employee of NARA--the Archivist--has asked himself every day since first coming to work 14 days ago. What better opportunity than at NARA to "do something great" in proximity to the heritage and values for which Lincoln and so many other Americans, whether great figures or ordinary folk, have fought for over the more than two centuries of our national lifespan. If, like me, your response is that there are few if any better opportunities, then, to paraphrase the poet: Come work with us. The best is yet to come.

Thank you for listening.

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