Standing midway between the White House and the U.S. Capitol, the National Archives building at 700 Pennsylvania Avenue is as impressive today as when it opened in 1935. Surrounded by seventy-two Corinthian columns, each over 50 feet high, it is among the most popular photo backdrops for tourists.
As we celebrate Archives month, however, I thought it appropriate to draw some attention to the words inscribed in large letters on the east side of the building:
THIS BUILDING HOLDS IN TRUST THE RECORDS OF OUR NATIONAL LIFE AND SYMBOLIZES OUR FAITH IN THE PERMANENCY OF OUR NATIONAL INSTITUTIONS
It is important that we never lose sight of the trusted role that nonpartisan government archivists – at the federal, state and local level – play in ensuring the permanence of our democratic institutions.
Since 2006, the American archival community, including the Society of American Archivists (SAA), the Council of State Archivists (COSA), and hundreds of individual repositories, has celebrated American Archives Month every October.
At NARA, we use this month to publicize our agency mission and priceless records and to raise awareness of the value of archives and archivists. We take this opportunity to celebrate the breadth of our holdings and locations and to connect American citizens with the records that document our democracy in action. Today the National Archives cares for 15 billion sheets of paper, 43 million photographs, miles and miles of video and film, and billions of electronic records. Like many of our archival colleagues at state and local levels, we face similar challenges of increasing volumes of electronic records—the fastest growing record form, while also undergoing budget and staffing constraints. We each have an indispensable role as the caretakers of the past and preservers of the future.
American Archives Month is a collaborative effort by archives at all levels to highlight the importance of historical materials of enduring value, and efforts to preserve and provide public access to them. To that end, I am proud of the leadership of our National Historical Publications and Records Commission who continue to support innovative research and discovery through our grants program. This program enables enhanced access to research content around the nation, funding projects and supporting initiatives to preserve and make archival collections more accessible to the public, support research and development, and improve access to state and local records.
The National Archives strives to be a trusted independent agency, providing access to the archival record of the United States on an equal basis to everyone according to the rules laid out primarily in the Presidential Records Act, the Federal Records Act, and the Freedom of Information Act. In fact, the law that established NARA as an independent agency in 1985 states that “The Archivist shall be appointed without regard to political affiliations and solely on the basis of professional qualifications required to perform the duties and responsibilities of the office of Archivist.”
NARA’s position is not unique. Every state has a State Archivist, and many towns and cities have municipal archivists. The importance of independent archives at all levels of government is critical to the trust of the country in its history, and the ability of the archives to provide reliable trustworthy evidence of the actions of the past. Every government archivist must be allowed to do his or her job free of political pressure so that the archival record can speak freely, and so the archives can continue to function as the trusted repository of the actions of government.
As we celebrate and recognize the important role of all levels of archives in our democracy, I invite you to participate in our American Archives Month celebration. See our Twitter #AskAnArchivist chats, read our blog posts, and celebrate our agency’s invaluable holdings and the innumerable ways we connect the American public with their stories.
I am very proud of the work of our staff at the National Archives every day. I will continue to defend the principle of nonpartisan government archives, independent and therefore trusted, so that archives can continue to be the trusted brokers of history as they are today. I wish you a fulfilling, uplifting, educational, and productive American Archives Month.