Beyond the Bill of Rights

Exhibits, Regional Offices Expand Scope of Archives

Posted September 4, 2007 at 5:16pm

When you hear the National Archives mentioned, original copies of the Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence probably come to mind. And the 2004 film “National Treasure,” in which Nicolas Cage’s character tries to steal that copy of the Declaration, only feeds into the association.

But the staff of the Archives wants people to know there is much more to the agency that since 1934 has been an official owner and preserver of billions of government documents.

Besides its main office in D.C. — which, they will tell you, has much more than just the “charters” — the Archives, formally known as the National Archives and Records Administration, oversees facilities in 17 states stretching from Massachusetts to Alaska. Those include 12 presidential libraries and 14 regional archives buildings.

“We want to make sure all Americans are aware there’s a National Archives facility hopefully within driving distance of where they live,” said Tom Mills, who oversees NARA’s regional facilities. “Those give them access not just to what’s in that site but a portal, a window, into what the National Archives is all about.”

Archives in the District
In addition to the three famous documents from America’s birth, the tourist portion of the Archives in D.C. features a permanent “Public Vaults” exhibit designed to provide a sampling of the documents the Archives holds that are available for private research.

The vaults are broken into five sections that draw on phrases from the Preamble to the Constitution:

• “We the People,” about family records and citizenship, including immigration and naturalization documents;

• “To Form a More Perfect Union,” on the activities of the government, including Congressional debate and investigations;

• “Provide for the Common Defense,” about war and foreign policy;

• “Promote the General Welfare,” on American progress, discoveries and inventions; and

• “To Ourselves and Our Posterity,” on the Archives’ operations and offerings.

According to Marvin Pinkert, executive director of the Center for the National Archives Experience, which oversees the tourist side of the museum, the vaults can be summarized by two words: “Records matter.”

“That’s what the Public Vaults is all about,” he said. “For the better part of 50 years, people came into the Rotunda, saw the charters, checked it off their list of things to do in D.C. and left. They had little idea that the genealogy of their entire family existed behind those walls.

“There are lots of the records of things and people that they care about that are on the other side of the wall.”

The Archives also features a rotating exhibit; the current one is “School House to White House: The Education of the Presidents.” Tracing the childhoods of Presidents Herbert Hoover through George W. Bush, it contains items such as report cards (it might surprise some to learn that Bush far outperformed some of his predecessors, including the woeful student John F. Kennedy, in school), school papers and youth sports photos.

“We couldn’t help but observe that as people were going through the Public Vaults, one place sure to gather a crowd was the movies of presidents growing up,” Pinkert said. “If that worked, we thought, ‘What if we have everybody’s report card, movies and photos that were much broader than what was in the tiny space we have for that topic in the Public Vaults?’”

The current exhibit runs through the end of the year and will be replaced on Feb. 8 by one featuring the political cartoons of Clifford Berryman, cartoonist for The Washington Post and Washington Evening Star during the first half of the 20th century.

Outside of Washington, the Archives Continue
As his presidential papers swelled during his second term, Franklin Roosevelt realized there would not be enough room for them in the Library of Congress or his personal residence. So he and supporters raised money and constructed a repository in his hometown of Hyde Park, N.Y. In his will, Roosevelt passed the library on to the Archives, which had been founded only 11 years earlier in 1934.

In 1955, Congress authorized the Archives to be involved in the process much earlier. It now operates 12 presidential libraries from Boston (Kennedy) to Simi Valley, Calif. (Ronald Reagan).

A president wishing to have a library (every one since 1955 has) must establish a foundation that raises funds and finds a site. President Bush’s foundation is in negotiations to have his library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

The libraries feature everything from paper documents (Roosevelt’s library has his Pearl Harbor “Day of Infamy” speech with his handwritten corrections) to audio, video and artifacts (President Harry Truman’s library features his famous “The Buck Stops Here!” desk sign).

Perhaps the least-known aspect of the Archives is its 14 regional research rooms, which contain about one-fourth of the Archives’ total records, according to Mills, the regional archives director.

The New York City archives contain Ellis Island immigration data, and the original Brown v. Board of Education decision is held in a facility in Kansas City, Mo.

The regional archives are designed for researchers rather than tourists, although Mills said the Atlanta branch has started an exhibit.

Some of the regional offices have specialties; for instance, since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are in Atlanta, its records are held in that office. The Denver archives hold a lot of Bureau of Land Management and forestry records, and the St. Louis branch has vast military data.

For the Tourist, and the Researcher
While the purposes of the Archives’ different branches certainly vary, officials say the unifying goal is to get Americans interested in history.

“History is a contact sport,” said Pinkert, who manages the D.C. exhibits. “We try to fill people’s heads with surprising, intriguing records that cause them to say, ‘Gee, this doesn’t feel like someone is telling me what happened, it feels like I’m discovering what happened.’”