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Don't Mess With the Archivists

(Movie Poster, National Treasure, Walt Disney Pictures)

I couldn’t be prouder of my old ship, the National Archives.

Events in recent weeks and months regarding former President Donald J. Trump have put the Archives in the bright light of national visibility. Not since Nicolas Cage brought us to the screen in National Treasure have we been displayed in such technicolor. From the battle over electoral votes to alleged illegal transfer of classified documents to the President’s home, Mar-a-Lago, the National Archives, and its unique role in our American republic have been front and center.

In his speech kicking off the 50th anniversary commemoration of World War II, Senator Bob Dole said this:

If the Library of Congress is our national library, and the Smithsonian Institution is our nation’s attic, then the National Archives can truly be called our nation’s safe deposit box, holding in trust the most important documents of our American life.

An archive is a collection of historical documents or records providing information about a place, institution, or group of people. Anything made or received in the course of doing the business of the federal government and having permanent value is maintained by the National Archives. Our records answer the questions, what happened? When did it happen? Who was there when it happened? What did it look like and/or sound like when it happened? In other words, archives attempt to put you (wait for it) “in the room where it happened”.

Archives offer the evidence for history books, magazine, newspaper, internet, and journal articles, court cases, genealogy, map making, motion pictures, art, and science. They are virtually the underpinning for words like fact, truth, rights, democracy, justice, defense, and safety. At the National Archives, the archivists approach their task with the care, integrity, and diligence that is worthy of our trust.

After my early morning train commute, I would walk from Washington Union Station to my office at the National Archives Building at 9th and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. On the east side of the building the rising sun would illuminate these words carved into the granite:

This building holds in trust the records of our national life and symbolizes our faith in the permanency of our national institutions.

Trust, faith, permanency. Those were the words that I looked at as I approached my work every day and are the words that have inspired and influenced generations of people who have toiled in that vineyard.

Before I drown myself in sentimentality, let me make a couple things clear. First of all, I am not now nor have I ever been an archivist. While I am a lifelong history junkie who grew up in a household steeped in old railway lore and went to college in Colonial Williamsburg, I came to the National Archives on an administrative management track and was never taught the secret handshake or the campfire songs of the profession. And that was fine with me. While of a higher average education level than any other department of the US Government, archivists are a different breed of cat. One archivist friend of mine once told me, “Look John, stop searching for warm and fuzzy in this place. Most archivists like things better than they like people.”

It does take a certain personality to find joy in tasks like “arrangement and description” or putting things in original order, placing them in gray boxes and recording inventories of what is in each box. Well not exactly what’s in each box. With literally billions of records that would take legions of troops, not affordable by the US Government.

Ironically, we have relied on researchers to tell us what’s in the boxes over the years. We know the series, but at the item level (read individual piece of paper or digital record), the author, the attorney, and the genealogist pan for the gold and often simultaneously announce to us and the world their latest strike.

This lack of item level control has made security tricky over the years and after some thefts (and fortunately arrests and convictions due to alert, honest rare document merchants) we created what we called “clean research rooms.” We controlled what could be brought into the room, worn in the room, and limited the records that could be on the table at any one time. Inspections were stepped up as people left the room and the building.

Through the years, the many archivists and administrators who like things AND people have risen to the top and customer service has become a treasured value. Archivists need happy researchers because happy researchers become vocal supporters of the institution which aids in funding and the hiring of more archivists. And one of the unique features of an archive...researchers need archivists.

Unlike a public library with a Dewey Decimal System, each archive is a unique collection. Archives are arranged in the order in which they are created. While finding aids have improved over the years and the transition from paper records to digital records has necessitated a whole new field and science of indexing, the “human finding aid” is still a unique feature of an archive. If you want proof, look in the acknowledgement section of your favorite history book and you will see the names of the capable archivists who guided the author through the records and pointed the way to the classics that supported old tales or the gems that uncovered new stories of our past.

When I moved to congressional affairs, one door that I frequented was the one that led to our conservation staff. I would characterize them as the Baptists of the archival faith, the ones who literally have a fundamentalist connection to the documents and would lay down their lives to protect them. Simply put, I wanted to show off precious documents on Capitol Hill. They reacted like I was an unmedicated mental patient asking to take their grandchild out for ice cream. Conflict was inherent in our relationship.

Sometimes I lost. Sometimes I won. But I always respected their professional instincts and worked to find a solution that would accommodate their worst fears; coffee spills, fire, theft, or anything else that would start out with, “wow, you’re not going to believe what happened.” Ofttimes the solution would include them coming along to prep the spot and babysit the document during the public viewing, hearing, or private audience with a member. We had world class documents, and they were matched by world class conservators.

I witnessed the work of archivists for 35 years and I can tell you this. If you like the documentaries of Ken Burns, thank an archivist. If you enjoyed the books of the recently departed David McCullough, thank an archivist. If you were inspired by Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List, or We Were Soldiers, thank an archivist. If you are a Japanese American who received reparations for your internment during WW II or a German family that had your stolen assets returned, thank an archivist. If you are a rancher who won a lawsuit to have historical water rights restored, thank an archivist. If you are a person benefiting from medical research into hereditary tracing of disease, thank an archivist. You get the idea. These unsung heroes work for you every day.

I know enough about that National Archives that on election night 2016 when it became clear that Donald John Trump would become the 45th President of the United States, I predicted an eventual head-on collision. No matter your political pew, we all can agree that Trump came into office to “shake things up.” Archives and constitutional governance are about rules, not about things shaken or stirred. And the National Archives is not only about rules, it is about federal laws and regulations. It is about preservation and protection of the US Constitution and all that it stands for. A collision was inevitable.

Twitter wars, undocumented oval office meetings, torn and sharpie-edited originals, document-clogged toilets, the list goes on and on. The crescendo of alleged records management violations reached the tipping point when slates of fake electors reportedly bypassed the desk of the Archivist of the United States in 2021 and went straight to Capitol Hill. Then missing national security records were reported to be at Mar-a-Lago. An inside tip? Well, when you're good at arrangement, you know what's there and you know what's missing. First archives contractors and then the FBI show up. We only know the tip of the iceberg in this sad soap opera. The Archives had to live it out.

The integrity and courage displayed by Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero and his deputy, Deb Wall, throughout the twists and turns of the Trump presidency and post presidency will go down in the annals of archival history as nothing short of heroic. They kept their eye on the ball throughout and were unintimidated by threats or potential consequences of their actions. I am proud to call them both friends and hope that they will eventually write memoirs of what must have been a rough several years.

So stay tuned. As we move forward in this national story, the National Archives will continue to prove pivotal in the outcome. You can have faith that they are up to the task and will preserve the truth for as long as it takes. History proves it.


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