John W. Carlin: Bringing the National Archives into the 21st Century

The National Archives was created on June 19, 1934. During the month of June, the National Archives History Office is sharing stories about the former Archivists of the United States. Today’s post comes from Sarah Basilion.

Archivist Portraits
Portrait of Eighth Archivist of the United States John Carlin which hangs in the National Archives Building. (Records of the National Archives)

John W. Carlin was appointed eighth Archivist of the United States by President Bill Clinton in 1995 and served in the position until 2005.

His tenure straddled two centuries, and much of his work as Archivist focused on bringing the National Archives into the current one.

A native of Kansas, Carlin attended Kansas State University. He then held many positions in the Kansas State government, first in the House of Representative and then as Speaker of the House. In 1979 he was elected Governor of Kansas and served two four-year terms.

Immediately upon his appointment as Archivist, Carlin began a comprehensive strategic planning effort that resulted in a 10-year plan to refocus the agency and bring it into the 21st century.

A main goal of the strategic plan was to continue the work previous Archivist Don W. Wilson had started in preserving electronic records. The Electronic Records Archives (ERA) initiative aimed “to preserve and provide access to virtually any type of electronic records created anywhere in the Federal Government.”

For the ERA, the National Archives partnered with other Federal agencies and experts in the private sector to determine the most efficient methods of preserving electronic records and making them publicly accessible. This became a more pressing issue as the use of technology increased going into the 21st century.

President William J. Clinton with John Carlin, Archivist of the United States, at the ceremony to announce the Charters of Freedom Project, July 1, 1999, (Records of the National Archives)

Carlin’s efforts to improve the National Archives in a new era did not stop there.

By the early 2000s, the National Archives Building was nearly 70 years old and in dire need of renovations.

Carlin obtained Federal funding to begin an extensive renovation project, which resulted in increased exhibit and records storage space and preservation of the building. During the renovations, for example, the Faulkner murals were removed from the walls of the Rotunda and underwent preservation.

Carlin also obtained funding for conservation work on the “Charters of Freedom”—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

Since 1952, when the Declaration and Constitution were transferred to the National Archives from the Library of Congress, all three documents had remained sealed in helium-filled cases. When not on display, the documents were stored in the Mosler vault beneath the Rotunda.

Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom, 2014. (Photo by Jeff Reed)
Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom, 2014. (Photo by Jeff Reed)

In 2001, for the first time since 1952, the Charters of Freedom were removed from these cases and underwent preservation before being placed into new, advanced cases. A new, more secure vault was also built.

Carlin’s efforts had ensured that the Charters of Freedom would be safe and properly preserved for years to come.

During his time as Archivist, Carlin worked with the National Archives Foundation to further advance the agency. In conjunction with the Foundation, Carlin “led a campaign to raise private funds to enrich the experience for visitors to the National Archives.”

This campaign resulted in the National Archives Experience, “an interactive, multicomponent program that takes visitors on a journey from the Charters [of Freedom] into the much wider world of the National Archives.”

Entrance to Lee’s Summit Federal Records Center. (Records of the National Archives)

The Experience helped to create public awareness of the work of the National Archives and its importance as a government agency.

Outside the Washington metropolitan area, Carlin oversaw the opening of the first National Archives underground storage facility in Lee’s Summit, MO, in 1997.

This was the first of four former underground mines that the National Archives uses to store records.

Carlin resigned in 2005, and returned to Kansas to work as a visiting professor and executive in residence at Kansas State University.

To learn more about John W. Carlin, read his biography on the National Archives History Office website.

One thought on “John W. Carlin: Bringing the National Archives into the 21st Century

  1. Governor Carlin deserves accolades for the initiative during his tenure to take staff who were classified as intermittents – working 39-hour weeks for many years (mainly at record centers) – and converting them into full time staff.

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