Adrienne Thomas: An Amazing Archives Career

The National Archives History Office continues to celebrate Women’s History Month with stories of former employees. Today’s post comes from Sarah Basilion.

Adrienne Thomas receives an award from Archivist of the United States Bert Rhoads,11/30/1973. (National Archives Identifier 286884325)
Adrienne Thomas receives an award from Archivist of the United States Bert Rhoads, 11/30/1973. (National Archives Identifier 286884325)

Adrienne C. Thomas began her career with the National Archives in 1970 as an archivist trainee in the Office of Presidential Libraries, after graduating from Iowa State University with a M.A. degree in American history.

She worked for two-and-a-half years with the Office of Presidential Libraries, and for four years as an assistant to Deputy Archivist (later Acting Archivist) James O’Neill. While working with O’Neill, who specialized in records access, she helped implement the Freedom of Information Act and battled the U.S. Census Bureau regarding public access to census records.

Thomas subsequently served as the Director of Planning and Analysis, in which role she helped the National Archives become an independent agency in 1985 after its split from the General Services Administration. She was responsible for “getting administrative procedures in place” following the split.

After 10 years in this position, Thomas became the Deputy to the Assistant Archivist for Administration. In this role, she oversaw the construction of the Archives II facility in College Park, Maryland, from inception to completion, and the renovation of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.

Thomas estimates that for six years, “three-quarters to all” of her time was devoted to working on the construction of Archives II. She negotiated with the University of Maryland to acquire donated land for the construction site, consulted with archivists and other NARA personnel to determine how much space would be needed at the new facility, and brought that information to architects, with whom she worked to design the building to fit its function.

Adrienne C. Thomas signs the panel that was hoisted over the topping-out party for the National Archives at College Park, 1991. (Records of the National Archives)

In October 1993, Thomas and her staff were the first to move into the new facility, even before records had been transferred. When the records, amassing more than 2 million cubic feet, were transferred, not a single record was lost.

During this time, she also worked as Chief Financial Officer and managed the agency’s financial and budget operations. In fact, advocating for and securing budget changes are some of Thomas’s proudest achievements from her time at NARA.

One such budgetary change was the creation of the Repair and Restoration Fund.

Prior to this fund, there was no portion of the annual budget allotted to repair and maintain NARA buildings—which includes not just the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, and the National Archives at College Park, but all of the regional archives and Presidential libraries.

Instead, the agency “had to try and eke out of annual appropriations enough money” to maintain the buildings, which made covering other expenses and contracts difficult.

Acting Archivist of the United States Adrienne C. Thomas participating in the popular “National Family Tree” activity at the National Archives 5th Annual Genealogy Fair, Washington, DC, April 23, 2009. (Records of the National Archives)

With the creation of the fund, the agency was given a budget each year for the express purpose of building maintenance.

Another budgetary alteration was the creation of the Records Center Revolving Fund (RCRF). The RCRF established a fund to cover the operating costs of records centers and allowed NARA to charge some federal agencies for storing their records.

From December 2008 to November 2009, Thomas served as Acting Archivist of the United States, the second woman to ever hold the position.

Thomas stated that during her year as Acting Archivist, most of her time was spent preparing current Archivist David Ferriero for testimony before the Senate to be confirmed as the new Archivist and educating Ferriero about NARA.

Adrienne C. Thomas, Acting Archivist of the United States, signing MOU with the Veterans Administration, 2009. (Records of the National Archives)

Her biggest impression of that year was “all of the public speaking [she] had to do,” something that was not required in her previous jobs at NARA, but that she became more comfortable with throughout her tenure as Acting Archivist.

Thomas’s long career at NARA began at a time when women’s rights were a pressing issue, and continued through decades of trials and progress. Thomas didn’t feel that she personally faced any gender-based discrimination, but knows that “there were women in NARA who did feel that way.”

She did note, however, that she was “the only woman in the room, certainly at meetings” several times, especially when working on the construction of Archives II. Nearly all of the architects and engineers were men, and the only women she remembers being on the team were tasked with interior design, which she said was “representative of what was going on at the time” in terms of changing gender roles in the workforce.

Adrienne Thomas with President Obama
Adrienne C. Thomas, Acting Archivist of the United States, with President Barack Obama, 2009. (Records of the National Archives)

She believes that, throughout her career, the agency’s employees have always been fairly evenly split gender-wise, and that NARA has had more women in leadership positions than other government agencies.

Thomas held several leadership positions throughout her career and certainly helped the agency through some of its most important changes and achievements in the last 40 years.

After nearly 41 years of service, Adrienne Thomas retired from the National Archives on April 1, 2011.

To honor Thomas’s service to the National Archives, and the nation, the Adrienne C. Thomas Auditorium at the National Archives in College Park was dedicated on March 21, 2011. She passed away on March 29, 2021, in Northern Virginia.

Adrienne C. Thomas Auditorium
Adrienne C. Thomas outside the Adrienne C. Thomas Auditorium, 2014. (Photo by Richard Schneider, National Archives)

Read Adrienne Thomas’s 2011 oral history interview, and watch our video on Thomas’s career.

Women’s History Month Spotlight: National Archives Employee Adrienne Thomas

Thank you to Ms. Thomas for taking the time to interview for this post.

One thought on “Adrienne Thomas: An Amazing Archives Career

  1. Adrienne Thomas was that rarest of creatures–a smart and focused manager of impressive experience who had a strong practical streak, endless energy, and an outstanding sense of humor and of the peolle with whom she worked.

    For msny years Adrienne Thomas was NARA’s spine, as she did much of the thankless grueling work essential to keeping NARA afloat and to planning, building, and oeratkng Archives II..

    She managed these challenges methodically, accurately, and with a sly brilliance that always left NARA in a better position than before she started.

    Adrienne was a pleasure to watch and as a colleague. She consistently improved everything she touched and was a delight and an education to her coworkers.

    I remember several offsite working groups when I had the pleasure of dining with Adrienne and Howard Lowell, which will remain golden in my memories for the laughter and creative good humor.

    NARA was very fortunate to have Adrienne Thomas on staff. She will be missed.

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