AOTUS: Eternal Vigilance

April 2022

David S. Ferriero
Archivist of the United States

Into the pediment of James Earl Fraser’s monumental “Guardianship” statue on the Constitution Avenue side of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, are carved the words “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” The words take on special meaning as we watch the situation in Ukraine unfold. All of us in memory institutions understand that this invasion poses a real threat to the recorded history of that nation. Invading forces seek to destroy the culture and wipe out the past.

 Cultural institutions around the world have expressed solidarity with Ukraine and concern for the irreplaceable documents and artifacts of its national heritage. The importance of protecting heritage assets was recognized in UNESCO’s 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, which declares that “damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind, since each people makes its contribution to the culture of the world.”

 As Richard Ovenden so eloquently challenges us in Burning the Books, “There is no time for complacency, the next attack on knowledge is about to happen, but if we can give libraries, archives, and the people who work in them enough support they will continue to protect knowledge and make it available for everyone.”

 No time for complacency. Couldn’t happen here. While I stood in my office window facing Pennsylvania Avenue on January 6, 2021, and watched an angry mob progressing to Capitol Hill chanting “Stop the Steal,” it slowly registered that should that mob recognize the building they were passing and what it contained, they might attack. I slowly backed away from my window and watched from across the room.

 Balancing security and protection with access to collections has always been the tension I have embraced as a professional in libraries and archives. Never, however, had I feared the physical threat that I experienced that day. And the experience did call to mind all of the potential threats that surround us as we do our work—fire, theft, and flood among them. But, most disturbing of all, is the attempt to erase our racial history.

 At the National Archives we recognize that generations of recordkeeping practices have underrepresented and marginalized those who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). As a result, records related to BIPOCs are more difficult to find because they are not sufficiently described.

 When I created the agency’s Task Force on Racism in 2020, one of its charges was to explore how we at the National Archives can ensure a diversity of representation, viewpoints, access, and outreach in our archival descriptions, exhibits, and education programs. As declared in the task force’s report, we are committed to embracing the complexity of our nation’s story so as to acknowledge and include the entirety of “We the People.”

 The erasure of a people’s history may result from active destruction, natural disaster, or neglect. As guardians of the historical record, we must stay vigilant so that all of our stories are passed down to future generations.

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