Wednesday, September 15th, 2010
“On the Friday before Memorial Day last year, I was in New York, minding my own business, when my assistant at the New York Public Library came in to tell me that the White House was on the phone. To be honest, I was not that surprised because a friend had nominated me to be Director of the Institute of Museum and Library Studies, which was a presidential appointment. I picked up the phone and this 12-year-old from the White House Personnel Office says, ‘I am working for the president on appointments. We are looking at you for Archivist of the United States.’
“In my head, the archivist had always been a Ph.D. historian or someone who had given a lot of money to the campaign. I was neither one, and told him they were looking at the wrong guy. He told to think about it over the weekend. When he called back on Monday, we had the same conversation. Ten minutes later, someone else from the transition team called and asked if he could come to New York and talk to me about the job. I agreed and we talked for an hour and a half. He described the kind of people the president was looking for in his administration, and then he invited me to Washington to meet some people and learn more about the position.
“In Washington, it became clear to me that I could do the job, as I had spent my life working in libraries. The tipping point for me came when I realized that I could make a difference. As I was leaving the meeting in the Executive Office Building, the head of personnel asked if I would consider being a candidate. I said yes.
“The first Friday in June, the 12-year-old from the Personnel Office called and said, ‘The president called from Saudi Arabia, and he is thinking about you. He is happy that you are considering the position.’ What do you say to that? In retrospect, I probably should have said, oh really, well put him on the phone then! That was how I got my job offer.
“I spent my first six months in this position educating myself about what we do, how we do it, and why we do it. I traveled to see the different National Archives around the U.S. and read a lot about the history of this place and of Robert Connor, the first archivist. When this place was built, FDR was very much involved in the National Archives. Not only was he behind the concept of creating the National Archives, but he was involved with the fine details, like selecting the archivists and helping to design the folders that would hold the paper archives.
“Over time, things at the National Archives have changed, mainly with the shift to electronic records, but the mission stays the same. Our job is to make sure that every agency is keeping relevant records and working with us to make them public. Of all of the records created in the government, only a small percentage of them, maybe 1-3%, are of historical value and make their way here. Still, that is a huge amount of information. During President George W. Bush’s Administration alone, there were 220 million email records. That does not include all of the other paper documents.
“To me, the National Archives is about the person on the street having access to the records of his or her government. We have created a place where future generations can look back and see how decisions were made here, and then they can make up their own minds about history.”