American Archives Month: Regina Greenwell, Johnson Presidential Library
We are continuing to celebrate American Archives Month by showcasing the work of our Presidential Libraries archivists. This edition takes us to Austin, TX.
Name: Regina Borders Greenwell
Occupation: Senior Archivist at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum
How long have you worked at this library?
Thirty-seven years, since March 1976. Prior to coming to the library, I worked at NARA for an additional two years. I’ll have my 40th anniversary this December.
How/why did you decide to go into the archival field?
I’ve always had a love of history, and particularly presidential history. As a 13-year-old, I persuaded my parents to let me go downtown and see President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade when he came to Dallas on November 22, 1963. I saw him just minutes before the assassination.
I later majored in history at the University of Texas. When my husband got an engineering job in Washington, DC, after graduation, I learned that the Archives was gearing up for a new declassification effort headed up by Alan Thompson. I was lucky enough to get the job, and worked with some great collections covering Army intelligence. Later, I was detailed to work with the Watergate Special Prosecutor’s Office with Nixon materials, which was a fascinating experience. That led to a job with the Johnson Library when we moved back to Austin, and I’ve been here ever since.
What are some of your responsibilities?
A big part of my job right now is serving as the team leader of the Library’s foreign policy team, which includes overseeing all of our declassification efforts: systematic and mandatory declassification review, and the Remote Archives Capture (RAC) Project review.
For those who aren’t familiar with it, the RAC Project is an interagency scanning effort in which classified documents are scanned at Presidential Libraries, reviewed for declassification, and returned to the Libraries. Hundreds of thousands of pages have been scanned and returned to the Johnson Library. I also assist researchers working on our holdings on the Middle East, Latin America, the United Nations, and national security policy.
I was the co-team leader of the project to process Johnson’s recorded telephone conversations—by far the most fascinating job I’ve ever had—and am currently working on processing of the recordings made by Johnson in the Cabinet Room in 1968, which is proving to be another challenging task.
It doesn’t happen very often now, but for many years I worked with “special access researchers” who could conduct research in our still-classified holdings. They included the State Department historians compiling the Foreign Relations of the United States series, as well as former Presidential appointees, like Robert McNamara, Clark Clifford, and Robert Komer.
From 1978 to 1987, I was actually a historian on the Library’s oral history staff, where I prepared research materials for oral history interviews and edited the transcripts. That experience, and my work on the telephone recordings and in the foreign policy holdings, has given me a broad knowledge of Johnson and his life and times that has come in handy.
During the recent redesign of our Museum, I worked extensively with the Museum staff providing content for the new exhibits. I also contribute to the Presidential Timeline and work with the Library’s social media team. I enjoy working on the Library’s Tumblr exhibit “The Presidential Time Machine.” And I can come up with answers to a vast array of presidential trivia questions!
What do you like best about your job?
There is nothing like finding that new record—document, recording, or photo—that probably hasn’t seen the light of day for many, many years, and then making it available to others. It could be to a researcher in our Reading Room, to visitors to our Museum, or online to a vast new audience.
Something unusual or unexpected?
It’s hard to narrow this one down, because I’ve had a lot of interesting experiences. One fairly recent one occurred when President Jimmy Carter spoke at the Library. In his talk, he mentioned writing President Johnson a letter in 1972. After his talk ended, my colleague, Claudia Anderson, and I raced to the stacks. We found President Carter’s letter and Johnson’s reply in our post-presidential material and made copies to give President Carter before he left that evening. It was a fun test of our reference skills!
Something unusual about your President that the average American might be surprised to learn?
Everyone knows that LBJ was a great persuader and had a deep understanding of the way the Congress and the government really works. Some people also see him as a rough, crude Texan. One thing that really impressed me when I was working on the Johnson telephone recordings—and I’ve listened to all 643 hours a number of times—is that he also had an incredible and sophisticated understanding of finance and economics. If he hadn’t chosen to go into politics, I’m sure he would have been the head of a Fortune 500 firm and one of the richest men in the country.
This is a tough one. It would probably be the original Dictabelts that contain the recordings of two back-to-back telephone calls Johnson made in May 1964, first with Senator Richard Russell, and then with National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy. The subject was Vietnam, and Johnson famously expressed his doubts about US commitments there (“What does Vietnam mean to me?”). You often hear extracts of one or the other of the conversations, but hearing them both in their entirety, back-to-back, just as they were recorded, gives the listener a far greater understanding of Johnson, and of how he sought and received advice, than listening to them in isolation. Even though we have copies of the audio files, the Dictabelts themselves are important artifacts because they preserve the original sequence and timing of the calls. Give them a listen.
If you could ask President Johnson anything (personal or professional), what would it be and why?