Archival organizations provide advice to Obama Transition Team: Good news and bad news

A short while ago a group of archival and records management organizations (the Society of American Archivists, the Council of State Archivists, the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators, the Academy of Certified Archivists, ARMA International, and the National Coalition for History) posted documents they prepared and submitted to the Obama Transition Team responsible for the National Archives, who will presumably be advising the President-Elect on selecting the next Archivist of the United States. As one might expect, there is both good and bad news to report about this effort.

The good news is that these groups acted rapidly after learning about Dr. Weinstein’s unexpected plans to retire. They also worked together to coordinate a response. Presumably they wanted to move quickly in order to get their organizations’ names in front of the Transition Team early in the nomination process, and establish themselves as key stakeholders and resources. This kind of pro-active, quick, coordinated response is certainly necessary when responding to fast-breaking national events.

The group’s document, “A New Archivist of the United States: Qualities of a Successful Candidate,” contains nothing that I think any archivist or records manager would disagree with. It hits the key points about “ensuring that our government’s record-keeping processes are accountable, transparent, and open,” and emphasizes privacy, equal access, public ownership of government records, political non-partisanship, etc. It raises the need for the next Archivist to “provide leadership and advocacy on behalf of NARA’s roles to the public, government officials, and NARA staff, and on behalf of the archives, records management, and historical communities.” If the next Archivist had all the qualities outlined in this document, most in the archives and records management communities would be quite pleased.

However, if the next Archivist has only these qualities, I would be extremely disappointed and I think NARA would face a future of increasing irrelevance and decline. The bad news, in my opinion, is that the document produced by these groups fails to recognize and state how critical the need is for the next Archivist to be fluent with 21st century technology. Here are some specific examples of what that means to me.

– The next Archivist needs to ensure that NARA presents information about its collections to the public in the ways that the public wants to access it. NARA needs to be committed to meeting and exceeding the expectations of today’s users, and tomorrow’s as well. He or she needs to support using every appropriate technology tool to open up NARA’s processes and collections to public participation and use. And that access must be truly free–not tied to subscribing to a particular vendor or travelling to a NARA facility.

– In order to effectively lead NARA’s 21st century electronic records management efforts, the next Archivist needs to understand how people are creating (and want to create) and manage their information. He or she needs to have vision to understand how NARA can ensure that Federal records are effectively captured in this new environment without placing burdens that prevent people from doing their jobs effectively.

– The new Archivist must have a good understanding of how IT systems are developed. Some may scoff at this, but as someone who was in a position to observe the two previous Archivists, I think this knowledge will be a key to success. The Archivist is ultimately responsible for the development of NARA’s internal systems, most importantly the Electronic Records Archives. The next Archivist needs to be able to fully understand and critically assess information provided about NARA’s own systems development efforts.

– In order to effectively lobby Congress and the administration and serve as a public advocate for the role NARA must take in moving its archival and records management mission into this century, the new Archivist must be able to speak eloquently, knowledgeably, and spontaneously about the impact of new technologies on NARA’s mission.

There is another aspect of the new Archivist’s job that I think the archival and records management organizations did not adequately describe. In my opinion, as a former employee and an observer, the next Archivist is going to need the managerial skills necessary to transform NARA as an organization into one that is in a position to succeed in the 21st century. NARA needs a leader who is not afraid to make changes and who will listen to the smartest people in the room and support them, even if they are not the most senior. In short, the next Archivist must be prepared to shake things up and to follow through on it for the long haul.

The phrase that keeps coming up when I talk with my friends is that NARA needs an Archivist who “gets it.” The phrase that keeps coming up in my head is that NARA needs a 21st-century mind, not a 20th-century one. It needs a strong, technology-savvy, visionary manager who shares the values of government openness and accountability that Obama successfully campaigned on.

If we are lucky enough to get a new Archivist of the United States who meets those qualifications, then we will have change at the National Archives that we can all believe in.

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6 thoughts on “Archival organizations provide advice to Obama Transition Team: Good news and bad news”

  1. I have a question that I do not know the answer to: how much leadership and influence does the Archivist of the United States really have over other archivists working for NARA? Does that leadership and influence diminish the further away the archivists are from College Park?

    My only direct contact with NARA is as a researcher at Archives I in D.C., where I never saw an archivists both weeks I spent researching there – always dealt with support staff, not the professionals. So I have no experience with this, but I wonder how much the Archivist of the United States position figures into the whole equation? Is the deputy archivist the real leader? The real administrator?

    I just saw with Carlin and then with Weinstein a division among communities along diffeent lines (for instance, the liberals did not like Weinstein at first, see A&A list directions in comment to previous post) and I wonder how much the political job of Archivist of the United States can do/does for NARA as a whole.

    I know the Archivist presents and lobbies the budget to Congress and works with the Executive Branch to develop and implement the budget for NARA. But what else does the position do besides certifying constitutional amendments and the like?

    Just wondering.

  2. Russell, I think I can help out with a few of your questions.

    (1) The U.S. Archivist has enormous power over archivists who work in NARA for a number of reasons. S/he is in charge of an agency with 2,000+ people in much the same way a CEO is in charge of a corporation. How hands-on s/he is depends on the individual. The extent to which s/he delegates duties to a Deputy Archivist also varies from Archivist to Archivist. Consider how differently the relationship between U.S. Presidents and Vice Presidents has worked from administration to administration from 1953 to the present. At NARA, too, the power relationships and the way duties are split varies from Archivist to Archivist.

    The AUS certainly has the power to affect employees’ work lives and the agencies mission. The AUS decides who their bosses will be and, through a yearly performance review and expectation setting process, what their duties will be. His direct reports are career civil service Senior Executive Service, the managerial cadre above GS-15.

    The U.S. Archivist can move (reassign) members of the SES, within the Washington area and within the NARA regional structure. So, simply by controlling the top of the personnel pyramid, s/he effectively sets the agency’s direction through assignment of duties, setting of expectations, assessment of performance, and so forth. Beyond that, the U.S. Archivist sets the tone at the top in other ways, internally and externally. Sometimes there is a Outside/Inside aspect to the way the Archivist and the Deputy operate, with the AUS spending a lot of time on representational functions, travel to regional outposts, giving speeches, meeting with stakeholders, etc.

    Especially if s/he has a strong interest in management science and leadership issues, the AUS may direct considerable attention to a wide array of internal issues, as well. Some U.S. Archivists have more contact with staff at various levels than others, it depends again on the personality and approach they bring to the job. They can do brown-bag “meet the chief” events, attend divisional staff meetings, take q&a, or do management by walking around in other ways. Or they can ask their direct reports to keep their ear to the ground and keep them apprised of emerging internal issues. There are various combinations of management style that can be used in the Archivist position.

    To consider an example of the U.S. Archivist’s key involvement in a core agency function, go back and read the news coverage and NARA’s press releases from 2006 on the so-called reclassification flap. Parse carefully what NARA said. This was very much a public trust issue for the agency so what officials such as the Archivist say in such situations matters *a great deal.* You want to damp down the fires, not stir them up. You may recall that the issues died down, largely because Weinstein and his subordinate executive, ISOO director Bill Leonard, handled them deftly and forthrightly.

    As to the budget, the U.S. President sends that up to the Congress for the executive branch. His Office of Management and Budget coordinates budget issues for departments and agencies. Of course, agency heads appear at appropriations hearings.

    (2) Weinstein’s nomination could have been a lot less contentious but I saw the issues as procedural and precedential more than political. Weinstein had the misfortune to be picked to succeed an official whose departure was not voluntary. (Carlin had expected to resign in June 2005.) That does tend to throw up red flags, of course. Remember, the AUS does not have a set term but there is an expectation that he will serve 10 years. (The legislation originally established a 10 year term but that fell out in conference.) If he is removed, as Carlin was, the President of the U.S. is required by statute to inform Congress why. This did not occur — the White House never offered the obligatory explanation. That was not Weinstein’s call, of course, but it did make his path in replacing Carlin rockier than it might have been.

    I didn’t see the concerns expressed about Carlin’s removal on the A&A List during 2004 and 2005 as the purview of liberals. (I actually can’t pick out the ideologies of most List subscribers.) I’m sure there were conservatives who were alarmed by Carlin’s removal. Precedents set for the removal of an AUS appointed by a Democrat can affect an appointee put in place by a Republican, of course. So it was in the interest of liberal and conservative archivists to want to have all the i-s dotted and the t-s crossed when Carlin was removed. While most people on the List knew better, some historians did seem to get caught in the largely red-herring left/right thing, however. That may have played right into the hands of those who wanted to argue that there was nothing to the story of Carlin’s removal and that it all was a tempest in a teapot.

    (3) I’m not sure whether the people with whom you dealt at A I would have been archives technicians, archives specialists, or archivists. In my experience, staff do not necessarily inform researchers of their job titles. Whom you encountered depends on the topics you were researching. It’s been a while since I did research at A I or A II, but I definitely talked to reference archivists in the past. However, in recent years, I do know that NARA started changing the way it handles researchers. From what some of my friends at NARA told me, it appears the agency decided for a number of reasons during Carlin’s tenure that it could not continue to give walk-in researchers the specialized, individualized attention it once was able to provide.

    In the past, veteran archivists who were subject matter specialists assisted researchers and advised them on arcane documents. Nowadays in-person research is more of a wheel out the carts to the researcher, do-it-yourself enterprise than it was. That younger researchers increasingly expect individual documents to be digitized and web accessible (where they can puzzle out themselves how they fit together and what else is available) is accelerating this move away from developing collection subject matter expertise within NARA. Times change and priorities and resource allocations have shifted, perhaps unavoidably in some cases. The joke within NARA during the last ten years has been that while the golden age for walk-in researchers was receding, only older scholars would know the difference. Younger ones would assume it always had been the way it is now.

  3. Hi, Russell!

    After taking the time to write up a detailed account of the Archivist/Deputy relationship (which can be akin to a Chief Executive Officer/Chief Operating Officer relationship), I started thinking about your use of the phrase “the political job of the Archivist.” As a matter of fact, the Archivist does not have a political job. He is the chief of the agency and his function is organic to NARA.

    People sometimes refer to appointments such as that of the AUS as “political appointments.” A better term is “Presidential appointment,” especially for a job such as this one which is *not* linked in tenure to White House turnover. Most Cabinet positions turn over with the change of President but some top level federal positions (such as the U.S. Archivist, the FBI director) are not linked to electoral outcomes. Of course, the U.S. Archivist does not have any overtly political duties.

    Carlin and Weinstein both ran into questions when they were nominated but for different reasons. In Carlin’s case, it was because he was a former Governor and a FOB (Friend of Bill), rather than an historian, an archivist, or a records expert. In Weinstein’s case, the problems arose from the manner in which his predecessor was removed prematurely.

    As you may recall, there were some questions about why Weinstein had not made available to other scholars some research materials for one of his books. That largely was a sideshow. In my view, it stemmed mostly from the fact that academics zeroed in on questions to which they related most readily (research notes). They didn’t seem to take into account that once a person takes the helm of an agency, he works with agency counsel and his management team to ensure that laws and regulations are carried out appropriately. So what someone did with his own research notes as a private individual has little relevance once he enters a compliance environment.

    Curiously, although the National Archives independence statute made it clear the archivist should be appointed on the basis of professional qualifications, several nominations resulted in controversy. For a number of reasons, over the last 22 years, Presidents have been unable to come up with nominees who sailed through smoothly. You may want to read up on President Reagan’s unsuccessful attempt to have John Agresto confirmed as U.S. Archivist in 1986. The Associated Press reported on September 10, 1986 that questions had arisen about a letter written by Robert Tuttle, a Reagan aide who headed up the White House Personnel Office.

    “In a May 16 letter circulated by the committee, Tuttle had written, in regard to Agresto’s candidacy, that ‘we are doing everything possible to see that only the most highly qualified men and women who reflect and support the president’s policies are appointed to positions of public trust in the Reagan administration.’ These revelations were a major issue in the confirmation hearings because of a law passed by Congress two years ago which required that the archivist be chosen ‘without regard to political affiliation and solely on the basis of professional qualifications.’ Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Thomas F. Eagleton, D-Mo., said Tuttle’s questions apparently violated the 1984 law, which ordered the National Archives removed from the General Services Administration and established as an independent agency insulated from political pressures.”

    The Washington Post reported the same day that “John T. Agresto, the Reagan administration’s controversial nominee to become director of the National Archives, yesterday acknowledged to a Senate confirmation panel that the White House had asked him about his political affiliations and contributions.

    Democratic members said such questions violated the spirit of a recent federal law that says the archivist must be appointed without regard to political allegiances, and presented evidence that the White House had asked similar questions of other potential nominees.

    ‘Do you think it was appropriate for you to be asked those questions?’ asked Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), a member of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs.

    ‘No,’ Agresto answered. He added that he had made no contributions to the Republican Party and said his critics had no evidence that he ‘politicized’ the grant-awarding process while he was acting chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.”

    The nomination eventually was withdrawn and Reagan ultimately named Don W. Wilson to be U.S. Archivist.

    I also recommend Robert Warner’s book, Diary of a Dream: (A History of the National Archives Independence Movement, 1980-1985)_. You really get a sense of the nitty gritty of the U.S. Archivist’s job in the book, albeit during a period when the Archives still was a Service within the General Services Administration. Bob Warner resigned as Archivist soon after NARA won its “independence.” Good guy, I later worked with him on a history advisory committee.


  4. Maarja,

    I’m sorry you feel you need to write such long responses to my questions. What I meant by “political duties” is the fact that the Archivist of the United States 1) lobbies for NARA in the executive branch and to Congress and 2) certifies all Supreme Court cases, constitutional amendments, and other stuff like that. I’m sure there are other poltiical duties. He is an administrator and not tied to a presidential tenure, but it is a non-career appointment with the federal government and thus a political job. And he can be fired at any time by the president, thus another reason it is political – all presidents since Reagan have fired all U.S. Attorneys upon taking office, why not all other such appointments like the Archivist of the United States?

  5. Oh, no need for feeling sorry that I write long responses, I very much enjoy looking up information and putting data together. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it! Probably why I gravitated towards being an historian, LOL. One of the books I once helped put out ran 600 pages, not unusual for a history book, of course.

    The U.S. Archivist is in a very different position from the U.S. Attorneys. He heads an agency which has a nonpartisan mission. He or she would be hurt greatly in terms of function by perceptions that s/he is there to protect the incumbent President and is tied to his tenure. I’ve never heard anyone argue that the Archivist should be fired when an administration changes. That might lead people to assume that Archivists appointed by Democratic Presidents are there to protect Democrats and Archivists appointed by Republican Presidents are there to protect Republicans. That’s not what NARA is all about, it has a nonpartisan mission and could not uphold the public trust if its functions (and head) came to be seen as political.

    The Archivist needs all the help he or she can get to signal to the public that he is *not* a political creature and that NARA strives not to act politically. That includes having a term that is not linked to that of a President. That is why the statute does not call for him to be removed when an administration leaves. Do you really want it to be a more political position than it presently is? How would you see that improving NARA? Most of the people I know would argue that it would weaken NARA tremendously.

    Somebody who once held the position put it best when describing what NARA is all about. Former Acting Archivist Frank Burke once wrote that the National Archives serves “not to implement the programs of the administration in office but to protect the records, good and bad, of the administrations of the past.”

  6. P.S. When George W. Bush came in to office in 2001, John Carlin had been U.S. Archivist for 5-1/2 years. Carlin served as Archivist for four more years, until February 2005. So the President (and his advisors) do not appear to have regarded it as as a position which should be linked to the tenure of the man who appointed the Archivist (Bill Clinton). That was wise and consistent with legislative intent. Also, remember that the statute says that while an Archivist can be removed from office, Congress must be provided an explanation. That is not the case with Cabinet officials generally.

    I looked up the link for what SAA said about this in 2005 – see

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