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John W. Carlin, Archivist of the United States


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John W. Carlin, Archivist of the United States
John W. Carlin - Head of the National Archives and former Governor of Kansas
If it were not for this week's esteemed and rather unique Law Star, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence would turn to dust. Well, maybe not literally. But it is the job of John W. Carlin, the one-and-only Archivist of the United States, to preserve the historical instruments of our great republic.

For the record, because records are his business, when our humble national Archivist learned he made the elite Law Star line-up, Mr. Carlin was quick to inform LawCrossing that he is not, in fact, a lawyer. We knew that. He makes the grade nonetheless, because if the person in charge of the National Archives failed in his mission to preserve the dusty old parchment, as well as the shiny new e-records, that underpin our democracy and chronicle our nation in action, America's lawyers would have a lot less lawyering to do.

President Clinton appointed John Carlin as head of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the independent federal agency charged with preserving the nation's history and overseeing the management of all federal records. Mr. Carlin has served as Archivist of the country ever since. And although NARA may not carry the cachet of, say, NASA, without the nation's recordkeepers, our government's recorded history might as well be lost in space.

Prior to becoming the nation's records czar, Mr. Carlin enjoyed a successful career in state lawmaking, government and politics. He served as Governor of Kansas from 1979 to 1987. Before becoming chief of state, he was elected representative, minority leader and Speaker of the House in the Kansas legislature. Who needs law school, anyway?

After leaving the statehouse, Mr. Carlin entered academia, teaching graduate courses to future public administrators at Wichita State University. And at the time he received the call to Washington to serve his country's ever-expanding recordkeeping needs, Mr. Carlin was working in the private sector as CEO of Midwest Superconductivity Inc., a high-tech research and development company in Lawrence, Kansas.

Legislator, executive, educator, businessperson and now the nation's eighth archivist, Law Star Carlin builds his own legacy as he preserves and protects ours. But does he really get to fondle the original U.S. Constitution in all its historic (but somewhat brittle) glory? Let's head over to NARA in Washington, D.C. to shake the hand of the guy whose hands might have — at least we like to imagine — touched the Bill of Rights, deliver his Law Star and ask him.

Q: Mr. Carlin, as Archivist of the United States, you hold a fascinating and unique position in the United States government. You are the Law Star who leads the federal agency on a tireless mission to uphold and maintain the ''public trust upon which our democracy depends,'' if we may quote from the National Records & Archives Administration's excellent web site.

Was Archivist a position you sought? What do you love about your job at NARA and what makes the National Archives so valuable? How much autonomy do you have in fulfilling your duties preserving the nation's history and identity?


A: The position of the Archivist of the United States was not one I sought. My predecessor left with former President Bush. After failing to find someone who could be confirmed for more than two years, my name was given to the Clinton White House with Senator Dole's blessing. I was confirmed just over three weeks after being nominated and was sworn in June 1, 1995.

What I love most about the job is the opportunity to play a significant role in running an agency that is incredibly valuable to our democracy. The National Archives Records Administration is the recordkeeper for all three branches of the federal government. With records being essential for protecting rights and entitlements, making accountability possible, and of course for the accurate writing of history, it's easy to make the case that what we do is not just valuable but essential for our system of government to work.

By design and law, there is some autonomy for the Archivist. The Archives needs to be in an independent position to assure records decisions are properly made and free from political pressure. But we must also work closely with the Administration on budgets and records issues, such as the transition to e-government and the digital preservation challenges the government faces. We also must have the support of Congress to get the resources to fulfill our mission of providing ready access to essential evidence.

Q: Congratulations on the successful rededication of the National Archives Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom! As President Bush remarked at the ceremony in September, on the 216th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution, ''I don't know how you practice for a job like that. But I do know there's little margin for error.'' How much oversight did you exercise during the painstaking and intricate restoration process, as the pages of the Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence were removed from their old sealed encasements, examined, cleaned and microscopically, letter by letter, restored? And did you get to actually touch any of the original parchment, or was that a no-no?

A: Certainly, I exercised oversight, but only at a very high level. The agency is blessed with exceptional talent and, along with a group of outside experts to help design the new encasements, there was no need for me to micromanage their work. My role was limited to helping get the resources needed for the re-encasements and working to make sure the various elements of the large project came together so we could re-open to the public as soon as possible. I did on a few occasions get to see the parchment while being worked on, but did not touch, having learned very quickly that was a big ''no-no.''

Q: You also had a lot of success with the People's Vote initiative in which 40,000 Americans cast 300,000 votes by online and paper ballot on their multiple choices for the most influential documents in American history. Where there any surprises for you in the outcome of this widely-publicized project? And what is the difference between the People's Vote and the list of ''100 milestone documents'' chronicling United States history from 1776 to 1965, as compiled by the National Archives staff, which we understand Oxford University Press has now published as a book?

A: The People's Vote was actually the second part of our 100 milestone documents program, which we call ''Our Documents.'' The 100 documents were selected in the summer of 2002 and, with the magic of the Internet, shared throughout the 2002-2003 school year with teacher's guides and curriculum ideas so that students across the country could learn in a different, and we believe, more effective way (by using the primary documents) about the significance of these milestone records. A second teacher guide is currently is use this school year. After the initial success of Our Documents, we entered into a partnership with U.S. News & World Report to sponsor the People's Vote to select the top 10 milestone documents. Voter's selected from our list of 100 or they could write in selections if they felt one of their top 10 was not listed. I was surprised that the Social Security Act came in tenth and I am still bewildered by the fact that men voted in numbers close to 2 to 1 more than women.

Q: As your staff reminds us, NARA is about ''more than famous documents.'' Presidential libraries, Federal Register documents, immigration, veterans and census records, and many other vital materials make up the National Archives. But in our age of heightened national security concerns, what about not-so-public government documents: Is NARA involved at all in maintaining and storing classified government materials?

A: Yes, NARA appraises, manages, stores, and declassifies classified government records. Consequently, we have high-level security standards and rigorous processes in place to make sure access is appropriately handled. We work closely with agencies that hold equities in classified records to get them declassified when appropriate. Both the Clinton and Bush administrations have issued executive orders mandating declassification after a document is 25 years old unless certain conditions apply. This had opened millions of formerly classified records to the public.

Q: In this millennium, of course, important public documents and records are created as bits and bytes of data. New government records are as easy to destroy as hitting the ''delete'' key. What about Web pages, e-mails, instant electronic messages, and other electronic government communications and information: how does NARA collect and preserve these types of documents in our digital age?

A: The answer is, not easily. But over the past several years we have made huge progress in what is the biggest challenge we have. It is not just storing and preserving, but also figuring out how to provide access to authentic records many years and generations of technology later. The good news is we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. After over five years of partnering with the best computer experts and institutions in the world, and developing the requirements as well as advancing the research, we have out for bid now the opportunity for companies to submit designs from which we will select the one to be used to build what we are calling the Electronic Records Archives. Just as important, though, is our work with the administration and federal agencies at the front end of the record life cycle—where records are created and initial decisions are made about their management and how long to keep them—so that the record systems are properly designed and built and records management practices are current with the digital age. We're proud of our progress but fully aware that much remains to be done and that with bits and bytes, there will be new challenges constantly coming.

Q: What is your favorite document or set of materials in the National Archive?

A: My favorite is the Constitution. I say that because of the brilliance of the founders' work, the relatively few amendments passed in the 200 plus years of its existence, the model it has been for others around the world, how much allure it has, and the impact it has on us all as citizens everyday. As to a set of materials, I'd say our holdings on the Civil War. We're still learning from that tragic set of events. And seeing Lincoln's handwritten notes for telegraph messages to the front, not only do they bring to life the history of that time, but they communicate how at least one Commander-in-Chief truly fulfilled his title.

Q: Many educators say they are concerned that school kids — as well as parents — do not know enough about the history of our nation. How much of a problem do you consider to be this lack appreciation and understanding of history, and what can we do to remedy it?

A: I believe it to be a very serious problem, one serious enough that, if not dealt with successfully, could truly undermine our whole system of government over time. For our system to work well, we need informed and involved citizens.

We're spoiled. Too many of us are not only removed from the great challenges we've faced as a country, but aren't even aware of them. We take too much for granted. What can be done? Work to get the teaching of history & civics back in our schools. We're trying to help through programs like Our Documents and partnerships with National History Day. Our education staff focuses on helping teachers to use primary sources in the classroom and making historical resources for students and teachers much more accessible through the Internet.

Q: You have worked as a state government official as governor of Kansas, and also as a federal government official as Archivist. When it comes to comparing public service on the state versus the federal level, what do you see as some of the similarities between the two sectors? How about the differences?

A: The basics of public administration have many similarities, whether we are looking at local, state or federal government. In many ways, it is the local official who has the toughest job. He has the joy of being close to the people and the challenge that he is far more likely to routinely engage with them, and they are more likely to at least think they understand the issue involved and want to do something about it. At the other end—the federal level—the implications of failure are far greater. I know the judgment calls I make, because of the huge importance of records, and the work we do as an agency, affects not only our entire country, but much of the world, as they look to us to be a leader on the challenges of electronic records.

Q: What advice can you offer young lawyers who would love to follow in your footsteps and serve as head of an agency or federal office? Are there shortcuts or sure-fire ways to make it to the top, or is it a matter of whom you know and how lucky you are?

A: There are no shortcuts or sure-fire ways, but to say whom you know and having some luck doesn't matter would be wrong to say the least. Having said that, I do believe in the old adage that luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. And one of those preparations would be an MBA from a respected school that produces graduates who not only get hired, but also have a history of delivering. The good ones give you some practical experience to go with the academic material. Knowing proper administrative theory does not often translate into getting the job done. And ultimately to work in an agency, having a successful track record and climbing the ladder, combined with making good contacts along the way and being open to the right opportunities, will help someone reach this goal.

Q: What's the best thing about working in Washington? Capitol Hill cocktail parties? Hobnobbing with bigwigs in Congress? Coffee in the West Wing? Riding on Air Force One? Or is it mostly hard work and little glamour?

A: The best thing for me about working in Washington is the opportunity to do something really significant for the people of the country. I've never been on Air Force One. I have been in the West Wing many times but never for coffee. I work the party circuit only to the extent necessary to advance the programs of the National Archives. I do ''hobnob'' with my friends on the Hill, both members and staff, because they are key partners in whether that opportunity really produces something significant. Successful work in Washington is primarily hard.

Q: Finally, based on your knowledge of U.S. history, who are your Law Stars? Besides the framers, founding fathers, signers of the Declaration of Independence, etc., digging through the archives, have you found any unsung or lesser-known historic figures you wished received more recognition for their contributions?

A: My unsung heroes are the employees of the National Archives Records Administration who everyday work hard to make our mission statement of providing ready access to essential evidence a reality. They have demonstrated to me in my soon to be nine years a willingness when properly led to make the change necessary to meet the challenges of a very fast moving, exciting time. They have come together as a team to improve our service to federal agencies and the public. And they do this because they understand just how important their work is in guiding our democracy.
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