Spring 2007, Vol. 39, No. 1
Lighting the Path to the Future
By Allen Weinstein
A great historian and good friend of the National Archives, David McCullough, once briefly defined history as "who we were and why we are the way we are." Another great historian, also a friend of the Archives, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., has observed that "history is to the nation as memory is to the individual."
These distinguished scholars distilled in a few words what we at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) have in mind and spirit as we go about our work. We are the nation's record keeper, of course, but we also bear special responsibility for ensuring that our raw documentary facts—10 billion pieces of paper and, in the future, many terabytes of electronic records—have consequential meaning for the American people to whom they belong.
These records—some famous but others quite ordinary—tell the nation's story, document the actions of government officials over the years, and confirm the rights guaranteed to individuals. They are records that deserve preservation not simply for reference purposes but for use by all interested Americans. In short, they form a vital documentary bedrock of our democracy.
If the American people do not maintain a solid and respectable measure of civic literacy, however, they will not be able to understand or use these records effectively. For that reason alone, NARA considers civic education essential and an important element of our overall mission and goal.
This year, despite the absence of increased government funding for new initiatives, NARA continues to expand and enhance the museum, education, communications, and public outreach programs aimed at increasing levels of civic literacy. In some cases, we have forged partnerships that allow us access to more resources and expertise, partnerships that are often national or global in scope.
In Washington, D.C., our Learning Center is now fully open and serves as a central focus of NARA's efforts to help teachers make the study of history, civics, and social studies more engaging, interesting, and important for students. (Please see our Spotlight feature on the Learning Center.)
To further that goal, NARA's education specialists this summer will offer our highly successful "Primarily Teaching" workshops at eight locations around the country: at the main building in Washington; at regional archives in Laguna Niguel (California), Fort Worth (Texas), and Waltham (Massachusetts); and at the Eisenhower, Johnson, Ford, and Bush presidential libraries.
Taking our civic literacy efforts directly into homes, we have partnered with the "Mini Page," which is syndicated in more than 400 newspapers around the world and reaches millions of children and their families. Last year, our education team in Washington and "Mini Page" editors produced a well-received, nine-part series on the U.S. Constitution, and this year they are working together on a seven-part series about the Bill of Rights.
The National Archives Experience at our headquarters building along the National Mall provides—in addition to the Charters of Freedom, the Learning Center, and other components—the popular and engaging Public Vaults, a permanent exhibition of some 1,100 original documents or facsimiles from NARA holdings that tell America's story in various media. Much of the National Archives Experience has been made possible through our partnership with the Foundation for the National Archives.
Our highly successful exhibit at the National Archives Building, "Eyewitness: American Originals from the National Archives," has taken to the road for two years, starting at the Carter Library in Atlanta. Future stops include the Ford and Nixon libraries as well as institutions in Pennsylvania, Texas, and Nebraska.
A new exhibit, "School House to White House," examining the early education of Presidents from Herbert Hoover to William J. Clinton, is open in the Lawrence F. O'Brien Gallery through the end of this year. In 2008 it begins a tour of some of the presidential libraries.
At Federal Hall National Memorial in New York City, NARA and its partner, the National Park Service, are developing a permanent exhibit that will feature historic documents related to New York City as the nation's first capital under the U.S. Constitution.
This fall, C-SPAN will examine each of our presidential libraries in a dozen two-hour specials in prime time. On the Internet, you'll find a new interactive "Presidential Timeline," which will allow researchers to learn what an American president was doing on any particular day from 1929 to the present.
Nor should we overlook NARA's longstanding education activities, such as our involvement in National History Day—at the local, state, and national levels—and in "Teaching American History" grants, in which staff in Washington, at many of the libraries and at regional facilities around the country all participate.
The records NARA holds chronicle not only the landmark decisions and historic statements made by the important figures in our nation's history. At 34 locations around the country, NARA also holds the records of actions involving the federal government taken by or for ordinary individuals.
Those records include such things as applications for Medicare, letters to members of Congress, or ordinary census records. They may someday be helpful to people researching their own family genealogy, to historians researching the lives of famous Americans, or to individuals seeking proof of citizenship to qualify for a government benefit. Taken together, these records of ordinary citizens and their interaction with their national government tell us more about the nation's overall history than do the famous actions and decisions of important historical figures.
Indeed, there are many extraordinary but as yet undiscovered stories still to be found in our billions of documents: As President Harry S. Truman, a shrewd, self-educated student of history, once noted, "The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know."
At all our facilities, staff and volunteers stand ready to assist visitors in finding the records they seek and in helping them assess the information, meaning, and historical context of those records. Our hope is that by the time you leave the National Archives' facilities, you not only have the records you need but have also expanded your civic education usefully.
"When the past no longer illuminates the future," Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his 19th-century classic, Democracy in America, "the spirit walks in darkness." At the National Archives, we promise to continue working diligently to light the path for that walk into the future.
Allen Weinstein is Archivist of the United States.