The records keeper
Archivist vows records will be open and online
- By Aliya Sternstein
- Apr 11, 2005
The man who successfully sued the FBI for historical files in a 1975 Freedom of Information Act case is now in a position to open historical records to the public.
Allen Weinstein is the ninth archivist of the United States. He will be leading the National Archives and Records Administration and the agency’s Electronic Records Archives project. The $500 million ERA is an ambitious federal effort to save the government’s records, regardless of their format, and make them available on whatever type of hardware and software people might be using in the future.
"It's our moon shot or our Manhattan Project," Weinstein said. "It's got that level of importance."
The soft-spoken former professor was sworn in last February. His new job is to preserve all official presidential and government documents going back to the nation’s founding.
For the fiscal 2007 budget, he will request a substantial increase for ERA. The new request will be at least 20 percent more than the fiscal 2006 request of nearly $36 million, a NARA spokeswoman said.
Weinstein also is pushing to stop the dismantling of NARA’s grant program, which supports e-records research and state historical projects. Office of Management and Budget officials cut all funding for the 70-year-old National Historical Publications and Records Commission in the proposed fiscal 2006 budget.
Weinstein said he will pursue Webcasting to educate students and the public about the contents of NARA’s vaults. He said he often hears that people, unclear about the Archives’ purpose, confuse the building with the Library of Congress or the Smithsonian Institution.
As a former professor at Smith College and Georgetown University and author of “The Story of America” and “Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case,” among other titles, Weinstein comes to NARA with vast experience unearthing tangible documents. His mind works like an archive of historical stories and trivia, say those who know him. But now Weinstein must oversee the preservation of digital records, Web sites and e-mail messages.
"I'm struggling my way into the 21st century, as most of my fellow countrymen are," he said. Fortunately, he has a vast pool of high-tech consultants.
One of his sons is a vice president at AOL; another is a Web designer at Yahoo.
He also consults regularly with the ERA program director, NARA’s chief information officer and outside experts.
Weinstein must tackle the challenge of explaining to federal agencies which e-records must be saved. The task, he said, reminds him of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's opinion in a famous pornography case. Stewart could not define pornography, but he wrote in the court’s decision, "I know it when I see it." The same goes for e-records, Weinstein said.
The reality is that NARA maintains regular contact with agency records officers. The deputy archivist and CIO periodically brief CIO Council members on new developments in e-records management. NARA’s general counsel attends meetings with attorneys from other agencies to update them on new e-records guidance. And senior NARA staff members talk to agency executives, program managers, records managers and legal staff about records management requirements.
He plans to add new training programs and a federal records management council to deal with e-records issues.
"Without records, we have no history, we have no past," Weinstein said.
His training as a historian taught him how to handle the government’s primary sources. People cannot have an open, transparent society without an honest accounting of the past, he said. "In dictatorships, you can’t trust the validity of anything you look at," he said.
The government’s primary sources include architectural drawings, certificates, charts, electronic historical documents, legal documents, letters, memos, photographs and other official documents acquired and kept by the president, his staff, Congress and federal employees or contractors.
Weinstein's own history, from professor to government official, is captured in personal mementos, including photographs with Henry Kissinger and former President Bush and a personal note from President Clinton.
In the mid-1980s, while he was a professor at Boston University, Weinstein started the Center for Democracy, a nonpartisan, nonprofit private center to promote democracy worldwide. During his 18 years as its president, Weinstein had political contact with Reagan administration officials, the Democratic Party and foreign governments.
After leaving the center, he became senior adviser on democratic institutions at the International Foundation for Election Systems. Then, the White House phoned and asked him to become the national archivist.
"It seemed almost a miraculous combination of all of these areas I had focused on," he said.
Some of his colleagues say he is tailor-made for the new job. Timothy Naftali, presidential recordings program director at University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, met Weinstein a decade ago. The two men’s research on the Cold War overlapped, and both their books profited from an agreement with the Russian government to release documents relating to the Cold War.
"Allen's work as a scholar has depended on the opening of records," Naftali said. "He benefited from the release of Russian materials for the book 'The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America — The Stalin Era.' Allen understands that scholarship requires openness." The Russian materials were taken in the mid-1990s from a closed archive.
"The position of archivist of the United States is a tough one," Naftali said. "You have to be a manager. You have to be a player in Washington [D.C.]. But you also need to be a scholar or understand the needs of scholarship. He brings these talents together."
Most of Weinstein's academic pursuits will have to take a back seat for at least the next five years. After his tenure as archivist, he hopes to finish writing a book on modern democracies and complete a memoir. His teaching will be confined to NARA's public outreach programs.
"I would like to think that the educational components of what we do here is scope enough for me," Weinstein said.
He must also put politics aside, as he did at the center, because the national archivist is a nonpartisan position.
Most archivists stay about 10 years. However, to avoid political pressure, the kind that President Nixon exerted on preservation, Weinstein said he would like to have Congress review the archivist's performance after five years. Then, lawmakers could decide whether to renew the archivist's term.
A five-year term would not follow congressional terms, he said.
Weinstein’s nomination was controversial. Members of the Society of American Archivists suggested that Bush administration officials chose him without consulting the public. They complained about the administration’s handling of the appointment and questioned Weinstein’s qualifications.
J. Timothy Sprehe, an information resources management consultant and a Federal Computer Week columnist, said that if Weinstein can enforce his agenda and remain autonomous of the Bush administration, he might be more qualified for the position than the previous archivist, John Carlin, a former Kansas governor.
A matter that may determine people’s opinion of the new archivist is the disposition of the 9-11 Commission’s records, Sprehe said, adding that how public access to those records is handled could say a lot about the new archivist.