Debra Steidel Wall
Acting Archivist of the United States
During my very first job interview at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) on a sweltering summer day in 1991, I was asked “Do you understand that the National Archives is independent and non-political?”
Well, no. I was just looking for a job, and the National Archives seemed interesting.
My interviewers elaborated. They discussed NARA’s mission of preserving and making available the records of our government so that citizens can hold their government accountable, participate in the civic process, and learn about our history––good or bad. They told me that NARA archivists don’t interpret or censor the records; they follow clear laws and authorities, and, above all, are non-political. This, they said, was a cornerstone of American democracy.
I knew I had to be part of that mission.
As an archival trainee a few months later, I learned that those values were very real at NARA. There was––and still is––palpable pride in a mission that is greater than any one of us, and a vigilance about carrying out our duties in a professional, diligent, and non-political manner.
I also learned this was not just a matter of professional ethics, but that there is a deep legal underpinning designed to insulate NARA from political influence.
The National Archives was created by statute in 1934, signed into law by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It operated as an independent agency until 1949, when it was incorporated into the General Services Administration (GSA) as part of a major post–World War II governmental reorganization and renamed the National Archives and Records Service (NARS).
By the early 1980s, it was clear that placing NARS under GSA was problematic, so Congress began to hold hearings and draft legislation. Concerns about the politicization of NARS was foremost in Congress’s consideration, particularly with respect to the recent Nixon administration. The most notable incident involved an agreement between President Richard Nixon and GSA Administrator Arthur Sampson regarding the Nixon papers and tape recordings, as well as a questionable deed of gift allowing Nixon to take a tax deduction. NARS was not consulted in either case.
A Senate report (S. Rep. 98-373, 98th Cong., 2d Sess.) stated:
In sum, the Committee believes that the record, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, amply demonstrates the dangers of politicization which can occur under the current arrangement. In our view, reestablishing independence for NARS and the Archivist would provide the best insurance that archival and records management decisions would be made on a professional basis unaffected by political considerations or other extraneous factors.
On April 1, 1985, a newly independent National Archives was created by the enactment of the National Archives and Records Administration Act of 1984.
In this law, Congress paid special attention to the selection criteria for the position of Archivist of the United States. The statute uniquely requires that “The Archivist shall be appointed without regard to political affiliations and solely on the basis of the professional qualifications required to perform the duties and responsibilities of the office of Archivist.” Moreover, Congress did not set a term limit on the position, ensuring that the Archivist would remain in office during the transition of Presidential records from the White House to NARA at the end of every administration. The law allows the President to remove the Archivist but requires that the President “shall communicate the reasons for any such removal to each House of the Congress.”
The law also requires that the Deputy Archivist of the United States be a career civil service position, who shall serve as Acting Archivist for as long as it takes to confirm the next Archivist. Aside from the Archivist, NARA has no political appointees. Today, as the National Archives faces intense scrutiny and awaits confirmation of the next Archivist, I think back often to the job interview that inspired me so long ago.
Like other government archives in the United States, NARA’s fundamental interest is always in ensuring that government records are properly managed, preserved, and protected to ensure access to them for the American people. As I recently told NARA staff, we will continue to do our work, without favor or fear, in the service of our democracy.