About the National Archives

Remarks of Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero
Association of Centers for the Study of Congress
Seventh Annual Meeting, May 21, 2010
Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives Building, Washington, DC.

May 21, 2010

Who is the Archivist?

David S. Ferriero
David S. Ferriero The Archivist of the United States is the head of our agency, appointed by the President of the United States.

The AOTUS Blog


What's an Archivist?

(The Archivist is introduced by Richard Hunt, Director of the Center for Legislative Archives.)

Thank you, Richard, for the kind introduction. I'm happy to be able to share my thoughts on our common concerns and challenges. I'm pleased that we alternate hosting duties with the prestigious Wilson Center when your meetings are held in Washington.

The National Archives and the Association of Centers for the Study of Congress share a unique responsibility to Congress.

Every day—and in every way—we have to demonstrate to Congress that we honor the public trust bestowed on us as the repositories of congressional history. Our success is measured by the value Congress places on the services we provide through our Center for Legislative Archives and your centers.

We need the creators of the records to be as concerned and vested in their preservation and care as we all are. To raise their awareness requires visibility within the congressional community. Members, committees, and officers of Congress must understand that their records and papers are a central part of the documentary legacy created by our representative branch of government.

The National Archives, like all Federal agencies, receives appropriated funds from Congress to support its mission. And we are, again like all agencies, subject to oversight by House and Senate subcommittees. Our relationship to Congress is further defined by our special responsibility to preserve, protect, and provide access to the official records of Congress.

We have long been entrusted by Congress to hold the precious legacy of representative government at the national level. That legacy is a half-billion page collection that records our earliest beginnings under the newly adopted Constitution in 1789 and spans more than 220 years of our quest to form a more perfect Union. Those holdings now include many terabytes of data streams generated in the daily work of our lawmakers, and we preserve those for Congress as well.

Few people understand that we hold, but do not own, this precious collection. The Constitution in the Rotunda, just a few steps from here, carefully defines and protects the separation of powers among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government.

This protection is necessary so each branch can perform its prescribed role in a representative democracy, free from undue influence of the others, each uniquely created to discharge its constitutional duties.

The separation and sharing of powers among these distinctive institutions, so carefully constructed by the Founding Fathers, is the key to representative government in this country.

Within the legislative branch, the House of Representatives and the Senate are separate bodies, with each chamber maintaining its own rules, procedures, and traditions. These essential constitutional and institutional arrangements are expressed in the status of House and Senate records at the National Archives. House records remain in the full legal custody of the House, and Senate records remain in the full legal custody of the Senate.

We never act alone when the records of Congress are concerned. We respect the full rights and privileges of the congressional owners and stewards of their records. We share responsibilities but not ownership.

The House and Senate determine what constitutes official records, the timing of the transfer of permanent records to the National Archives, their preservation and use in exhibits, and the rules that determine when they may be made public.

The novelty of these shared responsibilities among branches and institutions has posed unique challenges, and at times in our history, we have fallen short of meeting legislative branch needs. For several decades within the National Archives, the notion took hold that because congressional records are not really our records, they should be placed low on the list of priorities when agency resources were allocated.

When we practiced such benign neglect, Congress found ways to remind us of our duties to the legislative branch. Over the years, their prodding—sometimes gentle, sometimes not–gave way to more direct congressional involvement in 1990. At that time, Congress applied a legislative remedy to clarify how we needed to work together to forge a more durable and lasting commitment to the archives of Congress in our care.

That legislative remedy was Public Law 101-509, creating the Advisory Committee on the Records of Congress. It clearly asserted the House and Senate''s vested interests in their own records and their treatment at the National Archives should be a high priority. There are a handful of people in the room who could fill in the rich back story on the people responsible for its passage, but that's a topic for a later day.

The creation of the Advisory Committee culminated a steady movement within the House and Senate toward greater attention to congressional records. This movement was marked by the addition of historical offices and archival programs in both chambers, the adoption of more liberal access rules, and an explosive growth in the volume of records preserved and transferred to the National Archives.

Since that transition period spanning the 1970s and 1980s, our holdings of congressional records have more than doubled every ten years.

The Advisory Committee's track record shows that it has provided the institutional means for communication and collaboration between the National Archives and the House and the Senate. Over time, the distance between our separate worlds has closed, and the frequency and effect of our interactions shows the increasing level of trust and confidence shared among us.

It all starts at the top, of course, and House Clerk Lorraine Miller and Secretary of the Senate Nancy Erickson have provided adept leadership not only of the House and Senate staffs they direct but also as the co-chairs of the Advisory Committee. It was my good fortune to attend the 37th meeting of the Advisory Committee on my very first day on the job in November last year, so I had an early initiation into the congressional record-keeping world.

Since that time, I have had the opportunity to form a close working relationship with Lorraine and Nancy, and I can promise that we will move ahead together on an ambitious congressional records agenda. I understand my responsibility to make sure that the Center is properly positioned, staffed, and resourced so that it can fulfill its expanding mission.

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The Advisory Committee has special meaning for you as well. The early years of its deliberations were devoted almost exclusively to the issues associated with official House and Senate records.

Ten years ago it turned its attention to the status of Members' personal papers. Since then, both official records and members' papers have remained in its purview, recognizing that success in documenting the work and history of Congress requires action on two very different fronts—one involving official records and the other involving the Members' personal records.

The Advisory Committee's attention to Members' paper collections helped to spur the establishment of your organization in 2003, when representatives of the two records worlds met at the Robert C. Byrd Center in West Virginia. Over the next seven years, you transformed a wish and a hope into an organization with purpose and mission. Both of us continue to look to the Advisory Committee for leadership and direction.

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I would like to touch upon the shared objectives that unite your centers, the Congress, and the National Archives.

First, we hold these records in trust for the American people, and we share the responsibility for expanding knowledge about Congress and helping Americans understand their role in the health and vitality of our democracy.

The need to understand Congress and its history could not be more urgent.

Today's critical issues–health care, financial reform, environmental challenges, and more–all are fought over in Congress, and those fights play out in traditional media outlets and the new world of blogs and twitters.

The legislative battles register across the body politic in powerful and surprising ways. Spirited disagreements and debate are good things. Representative government rests upon an informed and active citizenry. Less heartening, however, are the latest polls from Pew and other sources, which reveal that Americans' opinions of Congress have fallen to an historic low.

Where do we stand today as a representative democracy and what do we need to do to become a more perfect Union?

Without a firm sense of historical perspective and the long frame of reference congressional history provides, how can we tell what's happening?

Are the temperature of public opinion and the super-heated nature of politics reflecting a normal and healthy expression of representative government?

Or, are the contemporary Cassandras correct when they see the signs of political bankruptcy and collapse?

Unfortunately, the body of scholarship on congressional history is too thin, and what exists is too thinly read, to offer us much help. We are still searching for the measuring sticks and guideposts to evaluate a changing democracy. There are many reasons for the modest literature on congressional history, including the size and complexity of the institution of Congress and the low level of investment in congressional research, especially as compared to the presidency.

Former Congressman Lee Hamilton and others have noted the swing in the pendulum of power towards the presidency over the past century, and a similar shift in scholarly attention to the White House.

Presidential scholars have benefitted as well from our own presidential library system, which provides a central repository of the records of each administration's history, beginning with Hoover, and facilitates and supports research in those records. This impressive body of research has yielded a rich literature on the presidency, examined from multiple perspectives on a broad range of issues.

But one must wonder how we can gain a proper perspective and understanding of the presidency in modern political life if scholars have not devoted comparative attention to Congress.

We all need to do our part to encourage and support scholarship on Congress for a balanced and accurate view of the changing institutional arrangements and relationships. Otherwise, our views on representative government and our debate on the proper role of Congress rest upon impressions, polemics, and hardened perspectives formed without the benefit of research and hard analysis.

Your association plays a critical role here, combining the official records of the House and Senate at the Center with your own centers' holdings of Members' papers. Together, they tell a more complete story of the individual and institutional accomplishments in the history of Congress.

Congressional scholarship is not bereft of some exemplary examples of recent work that show how records and papers can be mined and used to illuminate Congress's role in the critical issues facing us today:

--Julian Zelizer's pioneering work on Congress's role on tax policy shows that Congress was a prime mover in expanding the role of the federal government after World War II.

--David Barrett's examination of Congressional oversight and involvement in the creation of the CIA reveals that key Members of Congress closely monitored the activities and budgets of the secret agency's programs.

--Paul Milazzo's work on early environmental legislation shows that Congress was the "first responder" at the federal level addressing serious concerns about the nation''s supply of clean water.

--Richard John's work reveals that Congress took the lead in establishing and expanding the American Postal System, the critical institution that fueled communication and facilitated the nation's economic development.

--And Margo Anderson has shown how Congress shaped the U.S. Census and has utilized Census data as a powerful policymaking tool

We need more of these path-breaking works, and I am happy to see that your meeting included a discussion of the state of congressional research. We will continue to collaborate with you to advance and expand the congressional research agenda.

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I am also pleased to see that you have devoted time to discuss our shared responsibilities on the educational front. We represent the repositories of representative government at the national level. That makes it important that we take the lead in building understanding of the contemporary work of Congress and the contributions it has made in shaping American history.

Specifically, it is our opportunity and our duty to promote the study of Congress in schools. Lessons based on congressional records encourage learning experiences about how democracy works, and they are essential to training the next generation of informed and active voters.

Meeting this educational challenge is a mission we are uniquely qualified to accept. After all, if we do not use our records to develop innovative and effective teaching resources that bring the study of Congress into the nation's classrooms, who will?

In this context, I am delighted to inform you that National History Day has asked us to host a teacher institute next summer on Teaching about Congress. So, we will have a visible and broad-based platform to focus and renew our efforts.

I also want to let you know that on June 16 we will be sponsoring a conference on bipartisanship at the National Archives. The principal organizers for the conference are the Former Members of Congress Association and the Bipartisan Policy Center.

The Former Members Association is active on many fronts, participating at home in a number of programs to foster civic education and understanding of the legislative branch. Abroad, it collaborates with mature parliamentary democracies to tackle modern challenges and helps fledgling democracies with the transition from autocracy to elected systems of government based on the rule of law.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is the non-profit organization established by former Senate Majority Leaders Howard Baker, Tom Daschle, Bob Dole, and George Mitchell to develop and promote bipartisan solutions to our most difficult and intractable national challenges.

The June 16 program features a number of prominent former Members of Congress and media representatives. In their presentations, they'll reflect on past, current, and future attempts to raise the level of bipartisan cooperation within and outside Congress in the face of forces that fuel and reward active and organized partisanship.

We will provide additional details on the program and schedule in the near future and hope that many of you can attend.

In closing, I want to reiterate the importance of your Association to the National Archives and to the Congress and how closely intertwined our fortunes have become.

I promise that I will do all I can as Archivist to facilitate and support your efforts, recognizing that we have been entrusted with a special mission critical to the strength of our democratic republic.

Thank you.

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