In front of the main building of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, DC are two statues, the Future and the Past. In between them is the door through which I enter and leave when I work my shifts helping staff its Education and Public Programs Division activities.
When my late sister and I worked in the building together as National Archives employees, we enjoyed seeing fountains in front of the door. But I understand the practical considerations, including cost and upkeep, that later led to their replacement by flower beds. Each year, I look forward to seeing the bright signs of growth as the tulips bloom.
NARA staff, researchers, and visitors with appointments to meet officials use the public door on the north side of the building. On the south side, on the corners of Constitution Avenue, visitors use accessible doors for the museum galleries and education events. Which side is the front of the building depends on your purpose for coming to NARA.
Given my background as a Federal historian and archivist, I often suggest that examinations of NARA issues start with what statutes and regulations require. Our different experiences fill in some of the rest. No one person owns the narrative; we all reflect ourselves (some more, some less) in how we write.
On the job you learn “what they don’t teach you in grad school.” Sometimes you have to unlearn past acculturation or to decenter in order to grow. I was lucky that one of my first bosses at the National Archives taught me practical lessons about management. He told me, “If you want funding for your project, tell me where I should remove funding. Because the pot of money remains the same.” I’ve used that quote in online discussions where various stakeholders debated budget priorities in archives and libraries. Some were insular, others more aware of life at the top.
I see a pictorial allegory in the tulips and their shadows at the National Archives. As I wrote in Perspectives, users interpret the records we hold in various ways. AOTUS David S. Ferriero, a Vietnam veteran, observed in a New York Times Q&A about NARA’s “Remembering Vietnam” exhibit that we decenter when we acknowledge our own experiences but recognize the often contested nature of history:
Eric Foner, in his book “Who Owns History,” writes, “History always has been and always will be regularly rewritten, in response to new questions, new information, new methodologies, and new political, social, and cultural imperatives.” Our job at the National Archives is to ensure that the public has access to the information they need to do that job of rewriting history. As classified information is declassified, as presidential papers are reviewed and released, as records that have never been researched before are used, that story will continue to be rewritten.
Foner does answer the question: “Who owns history? Everyone and no one – which is why the study of the past is a constantly evolving never-ending journey of discovery.” As a librarian and as the archivist of the United States, my job has always been to support that journey. As a veteran, this journey is personal.
I see it that way, too, including in online engagement. There are many archives issues that I now look at differently than I did earlier in my career. I’m grateful for the diverse colleagues of various ages and different experiences, up and down the ranks, who have helped me listen and learn in the virtual world and IRL.
Daniel Ellsberg once wrote that if you have access to highly classified national security information, you feel contempt for those not in the know. My experience has been the opposite. And not just in my research or reading the work of the best historians. As Anthony Grafton and James Grossman observed in an essay about the value of history, “A student of history learns that empathy, rather than sympathy, stands at the heart of understanding not only the past but also the complex present.” This applies on the job, as well.
I’ve found it humbling and enlightening to read classified and other restricted information and to work to open some of it to the public. And to observe high level decision making in person over decades, as noted in my post about learning after grad school. The former provides intellectual insights into decision making. For me, the latter increases empathy and respect for those willing to take on challenges at the top. Blog readers know I often write that I know in person, like, respect, and support David Ferriero.
Early in my NARA career, I helped move records out of the White House as Gerald Ford left office and Jimmy Carter became President. You see our National Archives team in 1977 at the White House. And Tish Currie of the NARA move team which worked on the latest transition. In 1981, I helped move Carter records out of the White House as his administration ended. Those materials now are in the care of Dr. Meredith Evans, whom David Ferriero named director of the Carter Presidential Library and Museum in 2015.
In 2016, I passed Ferriero at a Rotunda reception at NARA and exclaimed, “I hear Meredith Evans is here! Is that true? I’ve got to find her.” David smiled at my exuberance, “Yes, she’s here. Walk around!” And I did! You see her with me at the NARA reception in 2016. And at an academic conference.
One of my most poignant National Archives memories dates to January 1981, when I stood on West Executive Avenue at the White House loading dock with pallets of Carter administration records. Picking up National Security Council files was challenging for us because Carter officials were busy with the Iran hostage crisis. We worked long hours on the move. That night in January, I saw a few Carter officials walk around quietly on the lawn in front of the White House. A last chance to be on the grounds in service to the departing President. Such transitions often are psychologically difficult for WH officials in human terms.
While the commitment of NARA transfer staff remains the same, transitions now include electronic as well as paper records. Last week I saw David Ferriero give a shout out to Ken Hawkins for his important contributions enabling the transfer to the National Archives of electronic White House records during the last administration. As someone who worked on past transitions, I loved hearing David’s tribute to a NARA official whose present work blends the old and the new to ensure access to digital records in the future.
Given Federal Records Act hold times (the period before transfer to archives), academic historians largely work now with records that are at least 20 or 30 years old. With the Presidential Records Act, the egalitarian nature of access provisions enables any researcher, not just the academic scholar, to file a Freedom of Information Act request for access starting five years after an administration ends. This creates large processing backlogs. But as John Laster of NARA’s Presidential Materials Division explained in March at a Sunshine Week event, he and his colleagues have a passion for access and welcome questions about how the National Archives works.
Those of us who work with electronic records have opportunities to prepare users who haven’t worked with such materials yet (see above) for the future. I’ve lived such research already. Inside the government, when a decision maker needs a brief from an on-staff Federal historian, the turnaround time has to be quick. Accessing information electronically has helped me meet such top level needs.
Working with electronic records during the last 20 years also has taught me about records life cycle issues. What it takes to ensure preservation and access. The work that Ken Hawkins and NARA colleagues such as Leslie Johnston do here is mission-critical. And on the reference end, as I explained in “Welcoming the stranger,” working with custodial units, NARA’s Office of Innovation plays an essential role in making access happen.
It admittedly took me a while to understand the goals and values of the Office of Innovation. I had to walk around (a lot!), listen, think through my reactions, again and again, before I could move forward. Change can be like that. You need time and psychic space to bridge old and new elements. The “aha” moments make the journey worthwhile, however.
This week I read in The Public Historian (May 2018) an essay Meredith Evans wrote about “Presidential Libraries Going Digital.” Her essay is a reply to an article by Bob Clark, a former NARA employee who worked from 2001 to 2015 in various positions, including Deputy Director, at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.
The academic journal (paid access required) also includes essays by another former NARA official, historian Michael Devine, and an art historian, Benjamin Hufbauer, author of a book on presidential library museums. From the time I joined the staff of the National Archives, I remember water cooler debates within the agency about various alternatives to the traditional presidential libraries system. These are complex and contested issues which require a 360 examination (well beyond the journal series) I have yet to see any historian undertake.
In a thoughtful, pragmatic essay, Dr. Evans writes of recent amendments to existing statutes, “Yes, I would like there to be a physical federal government presence on the campus of the Obama Presidential Center, for purposes of objectivity, stewardship, and evidence that the American government is continuing to care for the records under its guardianship. But technology and cost are factors that cannot be denied. The Presidential and Federal Records Act (H.R 1233) along with the Freedom of Information Act (5 U.S.C. § 552) have been amended to reflect changes in technology and processes.”
She adds that, “however federal appropriations–the actual budget as well as taxpayers money allowed to preserve and make accessible these items–have not increased.” This is a key point and why I often respond to various wish lists as my former boss taught me. I lost half of my Office of Presidential Libraries staff to a Reduction in Force (RIF) back in the day. And survived a RIF and office closures in another Federal agency. Budget decisions can be wrenching for all involved; return on investment must be part of them.
Meredith Evans describes the process by which NARA in 2009 solicited public feedback on alternative models for costly presidential libraries. These ranged from the existing one, to a centralized presidential archival facility funded and managed by NARA, to a private presidential museum associated with but not part of a NARA archival facility.
Public perceptions of solutions can be hazy. Around 1995, I met William Josephson, R. Sargent Shriver’s former law partner, for lunch in Washington. We chatted congenially about presidential libraries and records. I was surprised when he later wrote an op-ed suggesting the National Archives be a part of the legislative branch. This cannot work for an agency with executive policy-issuance functions. I say that as someone who has worked as an official in both the executive and legislative branches of government.
Dr. Evans notes that the “2009 report lists the advantages and disadvantages to each model. In addition, it addresses the complexity of born-digital records and acknowledges that ‘President Obama’s reliance on technology to conduct his everyday business, and his administration’s focus on the use of Web 2.0 and social networking. . .creates a challenge not yet met by NARA [during the 2009 tenure of Acting Archivist Adrienne Thomas].” She adds, “the decisions regarding the Obama Presidential Center should not be a surprise, disappointing perhaps, but not a surprise.” They were not a surprise to me since I’ve long worked with electronic records. That they were for some other historians suggests we have some outreach opportunities.
Dr. Evans writes that the reasons for Barack Obama’s decision to leave his PRA-controlled records in a central NARA repository and focus on a Presidential Center instead are not known. She writes that reducing the cost to the public of expenditure of appropriated funds may have been an element. She offers a thoughtful, empathetic look at the complexities of the museum function at the traditional presidential libraries, quoting Bob Clark, Richard Cox, and others.
She explains that in FY 2017, “the Carter Library and Museum had 441 researchers, 73,018 museum visitors, and 757,777 website visitors.” Meredith Evans concludes, “Museums bring public awareness to important documents, but displaying objects and records does not ensure impartiality. NARA is exploring a digital option for these important documents, one that clarifies roles and clearly defines who controls whose legacy. . . . A digital presidential library can augment the museum experience and open an educational platform to a global audience. The new path allows NARA to remain true to the agency’s mission. It’s worth a try.” Yes.
The Office of Innovation plays a key role in helping NARA stay relevant to users and in improving civic literacy. Through the online reference catalog. And by highlighting archival holdings, reaching a wider public than possible in the past. Foner’s inclusive quote about owning history–“we all do”–comes to mind. Just as archives are moving away from reference gatekeeper models, so, too, is the exploration of the past opening up to more visitors and voices. Yet there are archival silences to consider, as well.
After winning election as President in 1960, John F. Kennedy observed in an interview that his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, told him, “No easy matters will come to you.” In a speech in 1962, he quoted a poem which intelligence briefers later used in a predecessor to the President’s Daily Brief for November 22, 1963:
“Bullfight critics ranked in rows
Crowd the enormous Plaza full
But only one is there who knows
And he’s the man who fights the bull.”
Archival records provide insights into the lives of others. But not everything is written down. Which means we need to walk around. To strive to understand executives at various levels who handle “no easy matters.” And add to our knowledge, with the empathy Grafton and Grossman recommend. Not just for the clarity for which we yearn. But to navigate complexity and ambiguity, as well.