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FDR delivered my favorite of his speeches in 1932, a month before accepting his first of four presidential nominations. He spoke to the graduating class of Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, setting forth an assertive challenge. The speech was a call to action:
“The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something. The millions who are in want will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach.” Read the full address.
He spoke frankly about confronting the Great Depression – acknowledging the millions of Americans whom he would later describe as “ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished,” but also about a collective responsibility toward progress; our duty to work for real and permanent change. Of course, this vision became the bedrock of the New Deal, and this attitude set the tone for the entire Roosevelt administration.
In 1939 FDR’s progressive spirit also led him to create the nation’s first presidential library – an institution established not only to preserve the records of his administration, but to open those records to the American public, permanently. Though no legal mandate required his papers be opened for research or even saved, Roosevelt believed that the American people had a right to access the records of their government.
Yes, the passage I quoted above is historically significant, but it also resonates with me on another, more personal and professional level. I believe his call to action directly extends to our work at the Library and throughout the National Archives. FDR’s vision for open government was in many ways ahead of its time and our approach to modern archival practice also looks to the future: open the collections online. These days it is our responsibility to enter the digital realm in a way that is both useful and meaningful to the millions of people entitled to access public historical material. Millions can benefit from open and free access online, a prospect that would undoubtedly appeal to FDR.
It’s an honor to serve as a digital archivist at the nation’s first presidential library. I hope you’ll stay tuned through the coming year for new additions to our digital archives. On the Library’s website we plan to publish hundreds of thousands of pages of archival documents – resources previously available only in-person. The National Archives as a whole has made such inspiring leaps forward for open government (see Digitization at the National Archives, the 1940 Census Release, Transformation Blog). In my opinion there has never been a more exciting time to be an archivist. I am proud to work for a Library and an agency so committed to public responsibility and to mission-focused innovation.
Developing complex digital infrastructure to support an effective digitization program is no easy task, but we take very seriously the call to “above all, try something.” FDR would expect nothing less.
Why should anyone care who works at the Roosevelt Library, you might ask? Well, it’s because we all view ourselves as just the most recent caretakers of the institution that FDR created and established. It was FDR’s dream that the Roosevelt Library would house the papers, records, and memorabilia of his life and presidency so that Americans of later generations could gain in judgment for the future. The Roosevelt Library itself is part of FDR’s legacy, and we all take our responsibilities very seriously. So I think it’s important for the people who pay our salaries—you the taxpayers—to know who we are and what we do here.
I received my undergraduate and Master’s degrees in history at Texas Tech University. As a starving, penny-less student, I began working in Tech’s special collections library, the Southwest Collection. I’ll never forget sitting at the partner desk in the basement at the Southwest Collection going through my first box of completely unorganized archival materials that had been rescued from a woman’s attic in Lubbock. I fell in love with archival work.
But then I took an interesting turn. I went to law school and practiced law for seven years. While the law fascinated me, private practice did not. So with the turn of the millennium in January 2001, I asked myself “when were you happiest?” The answer: when I was an archivist. Soon, an archivist position opened up at the Roosevelt Library, and I moved to Hyde Park. It was one of the best decisions of my life. I was named Supervisory Archivist in February 2005.
Today, I oversee the care of the Roosevelt Library’s 17 million pages of manuscript materials, including the papers of FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt; printed materials, including FDR’s personal book collection of 22,000 volumes; and the audio-visual and photographic collections totaling some 150,000 items. I also manage our research operations, which hosts nearly 1,500 on-site researchers a year and responds to over 3,500 research requests that come in annually from all over the world. All this is done with one of the smallest (six people)—yet mightiest—archives staffs in the presidential libraries system.
The accomplishment of which I am most proud is that at the beginning of the renovation we managed to completely vacate the Library without ever closing our doors to research, even for one day. The experience proved that archival theories and practices work on any scale—whether organizing that box on the desk at the Southwest Collection in 1986, or moving all of the collections and research operations out of the Roosevelt Library in 2010.
I will always be grateful for the professional and personal satisfaction that the Roosevelt Library gives me. I work with some of the best and most conscientious public servants in government today. And every day, I get to come to work and be inspired by two of the greatest figures of the Twentieth Century, if not all time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.
This is the first post for our new monthly feature on “Staff Perspectives.” Every month we will be introducing you to a member of the staff here at the FDR Library and giving a look into who we are and what we do.
I first began working for the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library during the summer of 2004 when I spent ten weeks working as a public programs intern. After graduating from St. John Fisher College with a B.A. in history in 2005, I was hired by the Library as an Archives Technician.
I earned an Advanced Certificate in Archives and Records Management from Queens College in 2010, and was promoted to an Archives Specialist that same year. In June 2011 I became a full-fledged Archivist. My responsibilities include answering research queries submitted to the Roosevelt Library by researchers unable to make a personal visit, supervising researchers working in the research room, photograph and audiovisual reproduction orders, and leading a team working to create a database of projects around the country built by the New Deal agencies.
The reasons why I love working at the Roosevelt Library are many. First, answering research queries provides me with the opportunity to research a wide variety of topics. In a single day I might get to search through records on Allied aircraft production during World War II, read letters to the Roosevelts from people rescued from destitution by the New Deal relief agencies, and watch film footage of the shenanigans on board a Navy ship during a “crossing the line” ceremony.
Another reason that I love working at the Roosevelt Library is that the materials in our collections are evidence of some of the most significant events in the history of the United States, and even the world. The Einstein Letter, for example, led to the creation of the Manhattan Project and the birth of the Atomic Age. The promise of nuclear energy and the threat of nuclear war both exist in the world today because of that letter.
Finally, I love working at the Roosevelt Library because of the people here with whom I have the pleasure and privilege to interact on a daily basis. The Library staff is helpful and supportive, and has embraced me as one of their own. The researchers are enthusiastic about their topics, and I learn as much from them as they do from me. Some are devoted admirers of the Roosevelts, others are fierce critics, but all appreciate the impact that Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt had on the world around them.