Records Matter: Developing the
U.S. National Archives Experience
By John Carlin, Archivist of the US: presentation at the International Council on Archives (ICA)-CITRA meeting on "How does society perceive archives?”
Marseilles, France, Nov-13-16, 2002
It is a real pleasure to be here with you today. I always look forward to CITRA’s annual meeting because it gives me a chance to spend time with all of you who deal every day with records and archives issues throughout the world.
And the theme for this year’s meeting “How Does Society Perceive Archives” is of special interest to me. You see, since becoming Archivist of the United States seven years ago, I have come to believe that the way a society perceives their archives is key to gaining the kind of public support we at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, or NARA, as you also know us, need to succeed in our mission of providing ready access to the essential records of the federal government.
And the fact that this entire CITRA meeting is devoted to this issue tells me that regardless of our individual governing laws, or how our archival systems are positioned in our respective countries, we all recognize that our individual societies’ perception of archives fundamentally impacts on our success as archivists.
All of us here in the room today know that records are important - that records matter.
For without records, citizens could not claim their rights or hold government officials accountable. Without records, past mistakes would no longer be lessons for the future. Citizens, especially children, would have no understanding of their nation’s story. Indeed, without records, our sense of continuity as a people would be threatened.
I have often said that records are a foundation on which our democracy depends. But records are even more than that. As a prominent U.S. historian, and good friend of mine says, records tell us “who we are, what we have achieved, our adventures, and what we stand for”.
The records NARA holds lie at the very heart of our common identity as the American people. Just as the records you hold in your countries tell the story of your peoples, your nations, and your societies.
For more than six decades, it has been the role of NARA to preserve and provide access to the records of the American people. These records are available in many different locations -- in Washington DC, in Presidential Libraries and regional archives throughout the country, and now on the Internet. And yet millions of Americans do not know that the National Archives exists or that it holds Government records available for their use.
And because records matter, we realized we could no longer be passive about telling the public about the role that records play in all of our lives. That realization gave rise to a dramatic new project designed to reach out to the public at large. We call this project the National Archives Experience.
It began with a major renovation of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.
This renovation included upgrading major building systems, improving access for the disabled, and re-encasing the U.S. Charters of Freedom -- the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights-- to ensure that they will be preserved for generations to come.
We quickly realized this renovation gave us the chance to do more than allow visitors to view the Charters in new, more accessible encasements. It provided the opportunity to tell visitors about records and about why records matter.
It is this experience -- this discovery that records matter both to individuals and to the society in which they live -- that will be the core of the National Archives Experience.
It is in essence a journey – a journey through time, and a journey through our nation’s struggles and triumphs. It will not be a static exhibit, but rather a collection of interactive experiences. It will consist of six components, beginning with a visit to the Charters in the Rotunda of the National Archives Building.
For the first time, millions of people will be able to view all four pages of the U.S. Constitution, as well as the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. New cases will make the Charters more accessible for younger visitors and those using wheelchairs. A new multi-language audio tool will allow international visitors a more meaningful experience.
And the sense of our nationhood illustrated by the Declaration, the government of laws established in the Constitution, and the individual liberties proclaimed in the Bill of Rights will be celebrated in the Rotunda.
These same principles will be made tangible in the documents and the interactive technology contained in the Public Vaults. The Public Vaults are exhibition spaces that will be designed to give visitors the feeling of going “inside the stacks” of the National Archives. Once inside the Vaults, visitors will realize they have not just been given special access to the National Archives, but they are now inside the past and can glimpse the very heart of American government.
In the central corridor of the Public Vaults will be the Record of America, a journey through time and technology that will explore the transformation of records, from our earliest Native American treaties all the way to the Presidential web sites of today. The Record of America will immerse visitors in the world of records, not just ink and paper, but photos, films, sound recordings, and databases - all the forms of evidence by which we know the past.
Five vaults, each with a different theme, will bring records to life through interactive experiences and connections to popular culture. These vaults will draw their themes from the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution.
In We the People, visitors might help an elderly widow establish her identity as an American citizen or discover whether records of their family are in the Archives.
In To Form a More Perfect Union, visitors might explore evidence from famous civil rights cases, or cast votes after witnessing one of the great debates in our Congress.
In Promote the General Welfare, visitors might be transported back to the day man first walked on the moon or follow the footsteps of an explorer of the American West on a touch-screen map.
In Provide for the Common Defense, visitors might become a filmmaker using records to create a moment of film about D-Day or play the role of the President during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Finally, in To Ourselves and Our Posterity, visitors might explore a cave where records are stored or solve the challenge of reading electronic records in the 23rd century.
These vaults, individually and collectively, are being designed to let visitors of all ages become “users” of the Archives and see for themselves the power and importance of records.
In addition to the Public Vaults, the National Archives Experience will feature a Special Exhibition Gallery devoted to changing document-based exhibits on specific aspects of U.S. history or special exhibitions from Presidential Libraries and other sources. Exhibits in this Gallery will be designed to also be shown at other places around the United States and abroad.
The fourth major component of the National Archives Experience is a new 275-seat Theater. By day, the Theater will feature a continuously running film illustrating the relationship of records and democracy through the lives of real people. By night, the Theater will serve as an outlet for documentary films, both the films of contemporary directors and highlights from NARA’s 300,000 reels of archival footage.
Although education is part of every aspect of the National Archives Experience, the project will also include a Learning Center to reach students and their teachers and parents. It will combine NARA’s current education program with new educational opportunities both on-site and through distance learning.
For visitors who want to learn more, and for the millions of people around the world who will never step into the National Archives Building, the National Archives Experience will have its final component on the Internet.
A robust web site will recreate online much of the physical excitement of visiting the National Archives Experience as well as connect to the records of the National Archives itself.
The National Archives Experience is in development now, and many people are working hard to turn ideas into reality. And none of this would be possible without the support of the Foundation for the National Archives, a not-for-profit organization that is taking the leadership role in raising the resources to fund this effort.
The Charters of Freedom are scheduled to go back on display in September 2003. The National Archives Experience as a whole will debut to the public in 2004.
We hope the National Archives Experience will leave visitors with a new appreciation for the role records play in society and a better understanding of the role of archivists. If successful, it will illustrate the contemporary importance and value of our nation’s recorded history and how records serve as the link between the past and the future.
Visitors will come to understand not only how records can help to understand the past, but also how records enable citizens to claim their rights, entitlements, and liberties and to hold government accountable for its actions within a democratic society.
Visitors will learn what we all know very well -- that records matter.
It is our hope that each person who enjoys the National Archives Experience will take from it an understanding of his or her own personal connection to the records in the National Archives.
We hope that families will see their own stories as they fit into our national mosaic and that we can thrill and surprise young people with the real-life drama of the American experience.
We hope that our citizens gain new respect for the personal contributions and sacrifices made by preceding generations to realize the vision for our country that is found in the Charters of Freedom.
We hope that it will inspire individuals of all ages to take action and use the Archives to learn, to unravel, to discover, and to celebrate the stories of individuals, of families, of communities, and of our nation that can be found in records.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who in 1934 signed the legislation to establish the National Archives, said, and I quote
“To bring together the records of the past and to house them in buildings where they will be preserved for the use of men and women in the future, a nation must believe in three things.
It must believe in the past. It must believe in the future. It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its own people so to learn from the past that they gain judgement in creating their own future.”
This is a sentiment very familiar to those of us who care for and about records. I hope that by exploring the National Archives Experience, visitors from around the world will soon come to share our appreciation and respect for records of all kinds.
Through the National Archives Experience, visitors will examine the past and envision their own future. And, I believe the public will come to see what we as archivists already know - that our Archives are not storage places for old, dusty paper, but a fascinating, relevant, and very necessary part of our societies that hold the stories of our peoples and our nations and the makings of our futures.
 CITRA is the French acronym for International Round Table Conference on Archives. It consists of national archivists, heads of archives and records management professional associations of the ICA member countries and chairpersons of the ICA committees.