Publication Date

February 1, 1988

Perspectives Section



  • United States



President Reagan, distinguished guests and colleagues. First, let me say I am both excited and very honored to assume the office of Archivist of the United States. I thank each and every one of you for being here to share with me this important occasion, which I believe pays tribute to the National Archives as an institution. A special thank-you to President Reagan, Dick Cheney (Congressman, R-WY), David Mathews (Director of the Kettering Foundation), and Bob Warner (former Archivist of the United States) for taking the time out of their very busy schedules to participate in this program.

Before I give a few very brief remarks on my plans and hopes for the National Archives, there are two other people I want to publicly recognize today. The first is Dr. Frank Burke, whose able leadership as Acting Archivist over the last thirty-two months has kept the institution growing and has provided many strong foundations upon which we can continue to build. Thank you, Frank.

The second person I want to recognize is my wife, Patsy, whose strength and confidence in my abilities have often times exceeded my own over the past few years. Her love and faith in me were major ingredients in making this day possible for us.

Independence for National Archives provides unparalleled opportunities to expand the agency’s impact. To lead the National Archives at this juncture is a personal and professional challenge which I accept enthusiastically.

First, and foremost, I believe we must remember that the National Archives is more than this beautiful building gracing Pennsylvania Avenue midway between the Capitol and the White House. It is truly a national agency with more than 3,000 dedicated employees in more than thirty locations in fourteen states. Through its unique holdings of federal records, its skilled professional staff, and its multi-faceted programs and publications, the National Archives has the potential to influence every area of archives and manuscripts in the United States and most of the world. Therefore, I believe the time has come for this important agency to serve a broader audience and develop an expanded mission.

While the National Archives’ traditional emphasis on serving the historical researcher will, and should, continue as its basic mission, I think more attention needs to be given, to programs for the history-minded public who are excited about their nation’s past. The bicentennial celebration of the birth of our form of government and its institution provide a unique opportunity for the National Archives to begin to grow in this area.

Another future opportunity for National Archives leadership lies in formulating a national archival collecting policy. It is, it seems to me, time for the nation’s largest and most significant archives. to move beyond concern for its own records and play a leadership role in determining policy for documenting our national heritage. I am convinced that the National Archives can articulate the national interest in the identification, preservation, and accessibility of archival records at all levels of government. I think that the National Archives can energize, coordinate, promote, and consult without centralizing or seeking to control. Generations of specialized researchers and ordinary citizens will benefit if we are now able to establish a sound and thoughtful national records policy.

In addition to these opportunities, the National Archives must resolve several specific issues in the next few years. Three of the most pressing, in my estimation, are:

  1. Securing space to carry out the mission to acquire, preserve, and make available our nation’s most valuable documentation. For the past twenty years, this building has been full. I believe a new records storage and research building, already in the planning stages, must be built soon, and this building must be renovated to better meet the needs of our programs and our constituencies.
  2. We must find solutions to handling electronic records. Long-term solutions to these problems rest in specialized research and innovative methodologies.
  3. Preservation. After years of inattention, Congress has begun to provide the funds necessary to assure the preservation of our documentary heritage. But this task is staggering and increased efforts, including continuing attention, are required to preserve the records and our national memory.

I believe all agree that the basic mission of the National Archives is to preserve for posterity our nation’s most important federal records. As Archivist of the United States, I intend to fulfill that mission by providing the agency with aggressive, creative, professional leadership—to work to give the staff the resources needed to carry out the responsibilities of the National Archives. I believe that innovation, and the ability to adapt to present day needs, must be among the agency’s priorities. The tasks facing us are both enormous and challenging. The National Archives today requires leadership, ingenuity, and a long-term professional commitment to records-keeping and public service. Now is a time where there is a greater awareness than ever before of the needs of the Archives. Today, we have more concerted collective support and appreciation of its mission by users, constituent groups, the White House, and Congress, than at any time in its history. That makes now a time of opportunity as well as of great obligation. As seventh Archivist of the United States, I am prepared to fully commit myself to these challenges and responsibilities.

Don W. Wilson, Archivist of the United States gave this speech at his swearing-in ceremony on December 4, 1987. He is the former director of the Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum. He received his PhD in American history from the University of Cincinnati.