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Oh yeah — the archives

Sexy, no, but they’re the life of the party.

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ARCHIVIST: Dr. David Alsobrook.
  • ARCHIVIST: Dr. David Alsobrook.
And then there are the archives. They're not as flashy, the sleek archival building and its treasure trove of presidential documents and photographs and artifacts from 1993-2000. But they're the reason for the season — that is, the reason there's a William J. Clinton Presidential Center at all. On Nov. 18, the museum and the archives, built with $165 million in private funds raised by the William J. Clinton Presidential Foundation, will be turned over to the National Archives and Records Administration for safekeeping for the American people. The Clinton library will become the 11th presidential library run by NARA. Also that day, the foundation will hand NARA a check to endow the center's future renovations. Then, except for spaces here and there that remain the foundation's, it's Dr. David Alsobrook's baby. The director of the Clinton Presidential Center heads a staff of 30 museum professionals and archivists who'll run the center, maintain and create new exhibits, devise educational programs and be the caretakers of the Clinton presidential materials. For three years, they've labored to “take intellectual control,” as the staff puts it, over Clinton's record-setting presidential materials, including 80 million pieces of paper now stored, at a chilly 65 degrees F., in 30,000 boxes on 133 rows of 11-foot-tall shelves in the basement of the archives. And 2 million photographs, 88,000 rolls of film, 80,000 museum artifacts and 12,489 videotapes (both Beta and digital). And, soon, some 20 million emails now stored in Washington, D.C. Will all those boxes and photos and rolls of film be looked at and described and rearranged into perfect order in acid-free boxes? “Not in our lifetime,” said Emily Robison, Alsobrook's assistant director, the supervising archivist during the transfer of the materials to the Clinton Materials Project in the old Balch Oldsmobile building on LaHarpe Boulevard. On Jan. 19, 2006, five years after President Clinton's last day in office, the contents of those boxes (those that aren't classified) will be open to the public. Answering federal Freedom of Information Act requests — which researchers will have to file — for papers will occupy every minute of the archivists' time as they locate and review the materials to determine what can be released. (Classified records do eventually become open; when depends on the federal agency that closed them.) By way of explaining the work of the Clinton archives, Alsobrook beckoned any staff member who passed by his beautiful corner office to step in. (Two glass walls on his third-floor office offer a view of the south side of the Clinton library, the Choctaw Station, the park and beyond. Alsobrook worked at the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station for only eight years. He thinks he'll stay at the Clinton library the rest of his career.) Robison described the task of handling the thousands of boxes delivered to Little Rock in C-130 planes. They've replaced with their own order the one imposed by WHORM — the White House Office of Records Management. Kathleen Pate, education specialist, stepped in to talk about her work with teachers across Arkansas, developing ways to present the library to kids K-12, and the volunteers — some who drive in from as far away as the Delta — she's working with. “We couldn't do our job without them,” she said. Dana Simmons, who's had to shelve for a while completion of her master's degree in public history because of her workload, is archivist. Audra Oliver is the museum registrar who makes sure that the archives knows exactly where that Northern Ireland Political Chess Piece Board is in the museum (and who fixed the nicks they got in shipping). Debbie Bush and John Keller are the audiovisual archivists, and said they've been too busy to worry about any disasters that might lay ahead for all those negatives they've got stored in 35 degrees F. and 35 percent humidity. Public History grad Melissa Laney and student Adam Bergfeld were thrilled to get to work in collections management, where Laney gets to puzzle over the context of a rock from Switzerland. Alsobrook, who says his job is to make sure his staff gets “an opportunity to do their jobs better” and to educate people that an archives “is not something you put on a cracker,” noted that the work of an archivist can be “sedentary and lonely.” He will not have to market the Clinton Center; that will be the foundation's job. He will see to the “care and feeding of the exhibits,” work to present educational programs — he hinted at work on a family literacy project — and devise after-hours events on the Fourth of July and President's Day. The high points of the job so far: the safe completion of the move of the materials to the Clinton archives (one he shares with the staff) and getting to work with former President Clinton. “He's so interested,” Alsobrook said. “He wanted to know how many books he had (7,900 in the personal collection).” Gesturing to the top of the Clinton library, where the former president's residence is located, he said, “I look forward to the time he'll be up there.”

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