I have been fortunate to work in four institutions where the Guastavino family played a role in the construction of my buildings—first at MIT, then my library at Duke, one of my branches of the New York Public Library, and now the National Archives. Rafael Guastavino immigrated to the United States from Spain in the late nineteenth century and founded a company which would provide building contractors, structural designers, acoustical consultants, interior designers, and master masons for hundreds of buildings throughout the country. The Registry Hall at Ellis Island; the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina; Grand Central Terminal in New York City; Washington National Cathedral; and Grace Cathedral in San Francisco are all examples of Guastavino genius.
Guastavino tile vaulting at the National Archives building in Washington, DC.
Last week I had an opportunity to welcome John Ochsendorf, a Civil Engineering faculty member from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for his first visit to the National Archives. Unlike my tours with other visitors, John and I went up into the spaces around and above the rotunda, up onto the roof, and down into the garage. Also, unlike other tours, we were not looking at documents, we were looking at walls and ceilings and tiles and vaults! John is the author of Guastavino Vaulting: The Art of Structural Tile (Princeton Architectural Press, 2010).
On Sunday, I was honored to provide the keynote address for the Next Century Convocation at MIT, the institution which launched my career and shaped my worldview. I shared my thoughts on MIT’s striking founding vision and how pervasive its influence has been over the last 150 years, even in unexpected places.
MIT’s motto is “mens et manus”, Latin for “mind and hand.” It embodies the educational philosophy of William Barton Rogers and the founders of MIT. Their original proposal to create MIT, Objects and Plan of an Institute of Technology, addresses itself to “…manufacturers, merchants, mechanics, agriculturists, and other friends of enlightened industry in the Commonwealth.”
So where did William Barton Rogers get his inspiration?
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote “A man is known by the books he reads…” Rogers was a geologist by training but a look at his personal library gives one a sense of the range of his knowledge, interests, and attitudes toward the approach to education outlined in the Objects and Plan.
In 1975, when the MIT Alumni Association was celebrating its Centennial, a colleague and I had the opportunity to prepare an exhibit based on our yearlong effort to identify and reassemble the founder’s original library. Working from a crude inventory in his own handwriting and with a lot of time at the shelves of all of the MIT Libraries, … [ Read all ]
A few months ago, I received 15 handcrafted thank you notes from a group of school children who had visited with their parents and teachers from the Saltonstall School in Salem, Massachusetts.
I had the opportunity to answer their questions before their tour of the National Archives. My favorite question was from a young boy who asked, “Which is older, this building or you?” The question certainly stopped me in my tracks — and the parents and teachers were rolling in the aisles! And when I calculated the answer, I was appalled that the building opened ONLY ten years before I was born!
From their thank you notes, you can tell the visit made a big impression. Here are my favorite quotes:
“It was an incredible experience being just a few feet away from the documents that made our nation as it is today.” ~Cindy N.
“Thanks for showing us the most important Archives in the United States.” ~Sabrina O.
“Seeing all of the old documents will help me on my project about Washington, DC.” ~Marina W.
“Just knowing that I was staring right at our nation’s history means a lot.” ~Madyson P.
“I have only seen pictures of the Declaration of Independence, and it was really cool to see it in person.” ~Maise S.
“My favorite part was seeing you in the auditorium.” ~Sophia … [ Read all ]
While I was the Andrew W. Mellon Director of the New York Public Libraries, E. Forbes Smiley III stole more than 70 maps from our Map Division and Rare Books division. Only 33 of the maps were ever recovered.
Mr. Smiley was a rare map dealer, and a trusted friend of the New York Public Library. He was influential in building the Lawrence H. Slaughter collection of English maps, charts, atlases, globes, and books relating to Colonial North America, now at the New York Public Library.
A map from the Lawrence H. Slaughter Collection
at the New York Public Library
E. Forbes Smiley III acknowledged stealing 97 rare maps from libraries he had befriended and then sold them on the open market. He was a thief. He assaulted history, betrayed personal trust, and caused irreparable loss of treasures whose value to future scholarship will now never be known. He committed his crimes for personal gain, profit, and prestige.
A hallmark of our society is that libraries, museums, and archives are open and accessible to the public. This fact also puts institutions at risk from individuals who wish to diminish our collective heritage for their own selfish purposes.
At the National Archives, we know what an awesome responsibility we have to be good stewards of our nation’s heritage. The security of the holdings of the National … [ Read all ]
Yesterday I welcomed members of Congress to the National Archives to celebrate the donation of the Grace Tully Collection. After almost 30 years of effort, the National Archives and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library have obtained the papers that Grace Tully collected and maintained during her time as secretary of Franklin D. Roosevelt. My sincere appreciation goes out to Senator Charles E. Schumer and Representative Louise M. Slaughter, Senator Tom Carper, Senator Joseph Lieberman, Representative Lacy Clay, and Representative Edolphus Towns, who all helped to make this happen. My thanks also to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Henry A. Waxman, who worked on this effort in the last Congress.
The collection consists of over 5,000 documents and includes: memorabilia, printed items, and framed pieces; the papers of Missy LeHand, who preceded Grace Tully as Roosevelt’s primary personal secretary and was her close associate and friend; and many documents and notes that FDR sent to his staff for action or information.
Below is one document from the Tully Collection, a personal letter dated October 3, 1939 sent from US Ambassador to the United Kingdom Joseph P. Kennedy to Missy LeHand a month after the outbreak of World War II. From this letter, it is obvious that there was a personal connection between Kennedy, LeHand, and Tully, perhaps because all three were devout Catholics and all … [ Read all ]
Since June 2009, the National Archives has made videos available on its YouTube Channel at http://www.youtube.com/usnationalarchives. We now have 292 videos available, which have been viewed over 160,000 times. Most videos are from our archival collections, including some from Presidential Libraries. Other videos represent current lectures and educational events. I hope you take some time to explore the videos and let me know your favorites. Here are my top ten videos:
10. Fourth of July at the National Archives – Montage. Check out the National Archives float, new logo, and all of the activities at this year’s celebration.
9. We Were There When Nixon Met Elvis – January 25, 2010. This is fascinating discussion with those who were present when Elvis Presley came to the White House on December 21, 1970.
8. Carl Lewis – 1987. This is a powerful short clip from a longer video created by the U.S. Information Agency.
7. Space for Women – 1981. This video features interviews with women and shows the variety of positions they hold at NASA.
6. Who’s Out There – 1975. Orson Welles narrates this NASA video exploring the possibility and implications of extraterrestrial live.
5. Harry S. Truman – The Lobster Story. President Truman tells an amusing campaign story involving a lobster.
4. The March, Part 2 of 3. This video from the U.S. … [ Read all ]
The quantity, breadth, complexity, and relevancy of our records are never more apparent than when the National Archives and Records Administration and the Presidential Libraries are called upon to process and make available the Presidential records of Supreme Court nominees.
As the stewards of Presidential records, we take pride in this responsibility and recognize that our work supports our democratic institutions in this crucial decision-making process.
On Friday, the Clinton Presidential Library, one of the 13 Presidential Libraries administered by the National Archives, made available online more than 75,000 pages of records relating to President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Elena Kagan. This latest batch of records includes emails written by Kagan during the four years she spent in the Clinton White House. In total, almost 170,000 pages have now been made publicly available.
Image 1: Kagan Email Example (see citation below)
Image 2: Kagan Email Example (see citation below)
This has been a herculean task.
Since May 10, 2010, 16 archivists, 6 archival technicians, and a supervisory archivist have put in over 6,000 hours on the job — working every Saturday, Sunday, and Memorial Day — in order to process and make available almost 170,000 pages of records. The Director of the Clinton Presidential Library, Terri Garner, expertly managed the entire process, ensuring that we met incredibly tight deadlines. Additionally, I must call attention to … [ Read all ]
Last Friday, I stepped aboard the U.S.S. Constitution in the Charlestown Navy Yard of Boston Harbor. I joined Commander Timothy M. Cooper, his crew, and 150 members of the Wounded Warrior Project for an underway commemoration of the Battle of Midway. The ship honored injured service members from Operation Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom and commemorated the Navy’s victory at Midway Island in World War II.
The Archivist stepping aboard the U.S.S. Constitution (Photo Courtesy of the U.S.S. Constitution)
The U.S.S. Constitution is the oldest commissioned ship in the world. Christened on October 21, 1797, she is a wooden-hulled, three-masted heavy frigate of the U.S. Navy. She earned the nickname “Old Ironsides” during the War of 1812 when, in a 35-minute battle with the HMS Guerriere off the coast of Nova Scotia, 18-lb British iron cannonballs bounced off her 25-inch oak hull.
I grew up in Beverly, Massachusetts and remember my mother telling me how she had collected pennies to help save the U.S.S. Constitution when she was young. Having served a four-year enlistment in the U.S. Navy as a hospital corpsman during Vietnam, the underway was a memorable experience for me. It was a moving tribute to those who won the Battle of Midway and to our present-day heroes who have made tremendous sacrifices to serve our country.
The National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis is the nation’s depository for military personnel records. Within these records are the files of “Persons of Exceptional Prominence” including: Spiro Agnew, Desi Arnaz, Beatrice Arthur, Joe Louis, Humphrey Bogart, John William Coltrane, John Foster Dulles, Marvin Gaye, Theodore S. Geisel (AKA “Dr. Seuss”), Charles A. Lindbergh, Glenn Miller, Edward Murrow, Richard Nixon, Elvis Presley, and Jackie Robinson.
On one particular record, two celebrities intersect. The image below is the report of separation for Clark Gable, signed by his personnel officer, Captain Ronald Reagan. You can see Clark Gable’s civilian occupation as “Motion Picture Actor” and his military occupation as “Motion Picture Photo-Gunner.”
Clark Gable’s Report of Separation signed by Ronald Reagan
Military personnel records are our nation’s most requested records. Staff members at the National Personnel Records Center respond to 5,000 reference requests a day, over 1.3 million annually, representing 94 percent of NARA’s total written requests. The volume is certainly staggering, but access to these records is crucial. Veterans and family members rely on these records to prove service and complete family histories.
Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of attending an event to commemorate the construction of a new facility for the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis at Dunn Road for military personnel records. This new state-of-the-art facility is designed to … [ Read all ]
In our new exhibit, “Discovering the Civil War,” you can examine the hospital muster roll card of Christianna Batts, who was one of at least 2,000 African American women who worked in U.S. hospitals. Identified on the record as an “adult female contraband,” she was most likely a runaway slave seeking safety behind Union lines. You can also compare the pictures of Sarah Emma Edmonds Seelye dressed as herself and her alias, Frank Thompson. She proved her military service and was granted a $12 monthly pension for the life-long disability she suffered as a result of the war. The Congressional bill granting her pension is also on display.
I hope your experience in this space will lead to new insights or provoke a deeper understanding of the complexity of the war. It’s the personal nature of our own discovery that is so interesting to me. The Civil War ended almost 150 years ago, but individually and collectively, we are still grappling to understand the immensity of what took place.
Walt Whitman said, “The War of Attempted Secession has, of course, been the distinguishing event of my time.” Certainly for Christianna Batts, Sarah Seelye, and all who were swept up in it, the Civil War was transformative. The records preserved in the National Archives provide documentary evidence of the remarkable stories of ordinary people as well … [ Read all ]
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