What is the US National Archives?

When John Carlin started his job at the head of the U.S. National Archives back in June of 1995, he was shocked to learn that government emails were not being preserved. 

“They, at that time, did not consider email as a record, and I said, ‘Folks, I may not be an archivist, but those are records,’” says Carlin, who served as archivist for a decade. “By September I was able to go through the process of getting that changed. More and more records now are coming in the archives in the electronic form.” 

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is the official records keeper of the United States government. Among the records in its possession are presidential papers and materials, which former president Donald Trump is trying to keep out of the hands of the congressional committee investigating the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Presidential libraries are part of the National Archives and White House records are kept forever. 

“Authentic history is not possible without records that have been kept and preserved so their authenticity is backed up 100 percent,” Carlin says. “Accountability goes forward for a long time and people who work for the White House including the president, him or herself, can and should be held accountable. And, without those records, that cannot be done.

Overall, only 1%-3% of all of the materials created by the U.S. government during the course of conducting its business are considered important enough, for legal or historical reasons, to preserve for all time.

“The National Archives holds over 15 billion pages of textual records, over 18 million maps, charts and architectural drawings, more than 43 million images, more than 365,000 reels of film and over 110,000 videotapes, to say nothing of the billions of electronic records,” says Meghan Ryan Guthorn, acting deputy chief operating officer of the agency. “We’re focused on openness, cultivating public participation, and strengthening our nation’s democracy through public access to high-value government records. I kind of like to think of the agency like the nation’s filing cabinet.”

NARA keeps its holdings in 44 locations across the country, including the iconic National Archives building in Washington. For Carlin, the former archivist, some of the most memorable materials include those related to the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. 

 “I mean, literally, they tore apart the room that JFK died in from the assassination on that day in Dallas. Everything was kept,” Carlin says. “Everything in the room was kept.”

President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the National Archives in 1934, but the agency has items that date back to before the nation’s founding. Well-known documents like the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution are in the National Archives, but so are naturalization records that can verify the U.S. citizenship of immigrants, and military records of everyday citizens. 

“We do not throw military personnel records away. And we don’t set a date for very practical reasons,” Carlin says. “Anybody that leaves the military, in order to be eligible for veteran benefits, has to prove they left honorably and that requires a record. And that record is kept in our archives in St. Louis. And it has to be kept preserved and made accessible.” 

The public has access to many of these records. However, some archival materials are withheld from the public for a variety of reasons, including national security concerns, donor wishes, court orders and other statutory or regulatory provisions. The National Archives encourages public participation. 

“Maintaining the records and, just as importantly, if not more importantly, providing public access to them, can help illuminate the history of a nation,” says Ryan Guthorn. “The preservation of records documents the activities of a country’s government and citizens over time. It’s a really important way to track how a country has evolved and how the rights of citizens have been protected and managed by the government.”

Presidential historian Shannon Bow O’Brien says access to original documents is critical because while people’s memories may differ, the actual records tell the true story. 

“These tell us what they were doing, when they were doing it, how they were doing it, what they said,” says O’Brien, a professor in the government department at The University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts. “If you look at the documents, or you look at the paper trails that are in the archives, you can see the decision-making processes, you can see why things develop the way they developed.” 

The public can explore National Archive holdings via an online catalog and expert archivists are on hand to answer questions online.

Today, Carlin worries the agency continues to lack sufficient funding to properly do its job. 

“If you don’t have enough staff upfront to work with the agency, particularly electronic records, there’s going to be mistakes and records lost along the way that should have gone to the National Archives,” Carlin says. 

During his decade-long tenure as archivist, Carlin pursued federal and private funds to renovate the National Archives building in Washington, and added public exhibits as part of an effort to enrich the overall visitor experience. 

“The very fundamentals of our whole system are right there,” Carlin says, referring to the Charters of Freedom — the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. “It’s incredibly important and valuable that citizens take advantage of that opportunity to go there and spend a couple hours and really learn a lot about what has made this country great and what has to be supported going forward for it to stay great.”

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