Oral History Interview with
Director, Harry S. Truman Library, 1995-2000.
August 20, 2014
by Dr. Ray Geselbracht
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript]
This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.
Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.
Opened December 2015
Harry S. Truman Library
[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript]
Oral History Interview with
August 20, 2014
by Dr. Ray Geselbracht
GESELBRACHT: This is Ray Geselbracht, and Im here with Larry Hackman, former director of the Harry S. Truman Library, to begin an oral history interview with him. It is Wednesday, August 20, 2014. Larry, thank you for doing an interview for the Truman Library. I want to get things started and just ask you, whered you grow up? Whered you come from? Where did you go to college?
HACKMAN: I was born and raised in Glasgow, Missouri, a small river town in the middle of the state, a historical town in the sense that it was founded in the 1830s, there was a Civil War battle there, and it was in Howard County, part of the Little Dixie region that ran across the state on both sides of the Missouri River. Howard was the Missouri county with the most slaves on the eve of the Civil War. I was born at home in the half of an 1841 house that my parents rented for $20 or $25 a month. Neither of my parents or any of their relatives had much of an education. My father made it to the seventh grade and my mother to the eighth grade. We were from German Catholic families, large families on my mothers side and my fathers side.
A small number of the cousins in my generation began to go to college. At the time I needed to decide where to go to college, which I wanted to do, there was no experience in higher education among those close around me and no good high school counseling either. The University of Missouri at Columbia which is 40 miles from Glasgow was the most logical place to go so I did. I had no idea what to major in. I was a pre-business major for awhile, believe it or not. I was an economics major for awhile and was even inducted into an economics honorary society just on the basis of a high general grade point. Finally, when I was a second semester junior I believe, I found my way to American History. I earned my B.A. in American History in 64 and my M.A. in American history in 65. I already had a few graduate courses toward the Ph.D. by that time and I already had sent in my PhD dissertation topic to the AHA at that point, the topic being the Harlem Renaissance at a time when it was largely ignored. My major professor was Allen Davis who taught American social and intellectual History. But I also had had two upper class courses and two graduate reading seminars with Richard Kirkendall in recent United States history; he was the professor at that point who was sending the greatest number of graduate students and dissertation writers to do research at the relatively new Harry S. Truman Library in Independence. Kirkendall became a close friend and colleague many years later after I came to the Truman Library in 1995.
In the fall of 1965 I was a graduate teaching assistant in the Honors College section of the American history survey course as I worked toward the Ph.D. That was interrupted when I received my reclassification from my county draft board. I appealed that unsuccessfully and I knew that unless I did something, I would probably be on my way to Vietnam fairly quickly. I considered several alternatives in the military as an officer, but I knew I wasnt really interested, and then I scrambled into an Army Reserve Unit in Kansas City. In this same period, I found that I was not enjoying my first experience as a teaching assistant and I had nearly concluded that I was not going to enjoy being an academic historian in any case because I also did not enjoy primary research. Perhaps I would have learned to enjoy research if I had done more of it, and maybe I would have become a good teacher. In retrospect, I believe both were problematic. So I took a job in Kansas City with the regional
office of the new Office of Economic Opportunity, the War on Poverty program under President Johnson that Sargent Shriver headed. And I worked there for about six months.
One day I was approached by a more senior staff member in the regional OEO office who happened to have worked at GSA in Washington with a fellow named John Stewart who was then at the National Archives and had just been named the new director of the John F. Kennedy Oral History Project. That project was funded in those days by the Carnegie Foundation, but located in the National Archives. Stewart was interested in hiring an interviewer who had a reasonably strong background in recent United States history. So John came out to Kansas City by train because there was an airline strike on and he interviewed me at the Truman Library to become an oral history interviewer for the John F. Kennedy Oral History Project. I accepted the position. The work I was doing at OEO in reviewing applications from school districts in the very early days of Project Head Start was not very interesting to me. At this same time I had passed the Federal Management Intern exam and the interviewing process and was offered a job at the Department of Labor in Washington. Then this Kennedy job offer came along which sounded much more interesting and also raised my Civil Service status from a Grade 7 to an 11, a big jump for me.
GESELBRACHT: When was this?
HACKMAN: This was in the summer of 1966. Sandi and I were married in June in Columbia and rented an apartment in Kansas City. By September, we were living in Washington. In November, I was called into active duty at Fort Jackson, South Carolina in the Army Reserves. I had done only one or two oral history interviews before I was called to active duty. I did basic training and then wrote for the base newspaper for another couple of months before returning to the oral history job in April or May 1967. I was substantially involved in the Kennedy Oral History Project work for about four years. This was an intense, eye-opening learning experience in public history. I did research on a wide variety of topics and issues and met and interviewed an incredible array of people at high levels, just listening to and learning not only about the Kennedy period, especially the 1950s and early 1960s, but also about how people at high levels in government and politics and the media went about their work, how they got things done. I interviewed some members of the White House staff and other close personal associates of John and Robert Kennedy, leaders in various Cabinet and executive agencies, ambassadors and high officials in the State Department, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, members of the press, and some governors and other leaders in politics around the country. Many of these people were household names then. Many of the transcripts of those interviews have been used by scholars since that time and almost all are now available on-line.
I cant think of a better, more fortuitous experience for someone with my limited background to have over the first five years of a career than learning about so many policy areas and also learning how to feel comfortable in discussing such a wide range of subject matter with so many different kinds of people involved in these issues. I did a great deal of reading in those days, nonfiction, journals, newspapers, magazines, even many novels about government and politics and recent United States history. I just learned a lot and gained confidence, which you need to do oral history at a high level . So that was a great first work experience. It also introduced me to a limited extent to presidential libraries and to the National Archives and to their cultures and some limited amount about the way they thought about things.
GESELBRACHT: You were based in Washington this whole time?
HACKMAN: Based in Washington in a third or fourth floor office in the National Archives; not back in the stacks. We operated with big Wollensak reel to reel recorders, which seemed very cumbersome, and were certainly compared to todays equipment. We had a staff of part time transcribers, mostly college students, and a couple of editors. After a few years, the Kennedy Library proper began to organize a pre-Kennedy Library operation out of the Federal Records Center in Waltham, Massachusetts. Thats where the Kennedy papers were transferred and where after a few years researchers could come to research papers as we began to open files and oral history interviews under the terms of the relevant deeds of gift. Some of that early research was quite good given the limitations on access.
In 1970, I applied for the Littauer Fellowship to the School of Government at Harvard and I was awarded that Fellowship. Frank Mankiewicz, who had been a Peace Corps official and then Robert Kennedys press secretary wrote my main recommendation. I knew I didnt want to continue to do oral history forever, and I was kind of casting around for something else to do. Im not sure that I learned a great deal from that year at Harvard, which gave me a masters in public administration. I sort of paused, I took a relatively easy course load, they gave an easy one-year masters program. Almost everyone in that program was a mid-career civil servant and I was much the younger of that group. As some aspects of a Kennedy Library began to take shape at that Federal Records Center, I went to work there as an employee of the National Archives proper, no longer on Carnegie funds but on regular appropriated funds. I didnt do much collections management even though my title was senior archivist. I did work a lot with the early researchers who came there because I knew a lot of the history, the content of many oral history interviews, a lot of the people, where some of the papers were, and so on. I negotiated the deposit of some Kennedy-related papers to the Kennedy Library.
GESELBRACHT: So you were still working on the Kennedy Library staff at that point?
HACKMAN: Right. I was working on-
GESELBRACHT: But still in Washington?
HACKMAN: No. This was all in Waltham. After the year in Cambridge.
GESELBRACHT: After Harvard.
HACKMAN: We bought an old 1832 two-family house on the Mystic River in Arlington and started our family. After a couple of years we bought another on Little Pond in Belmont, Massachusetts. For five years, I worked for that operation out of the Federal Records Center. After Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, for a couple of years I and a new staff member stationed in Washington had focused on oral history interviewing with the people around Robert Kennedy in the Justice Department, political campaigns, the Senate, and so on.
The early oral history experience had been a great first learning experience. Another learning experience came while I was in that Kennedy operation in Waltham when I was given a new title, because of some programs we were trying to develop there, as Director of Special Programs. This may have been an informal title of convenience as I worked over the next couple of years. The work included community outreach, working with secondary schools and universities, doing a wide variety of public programs, a few modest exhibits, being executive producer of an interactive film on Presidential decision making which is
where a lot of ideas came from that I later brought to the Truman Library a little fundraising, learning to work with all kinds of institutions, nonprofits, educational, local governments. We developed one program we called the Community Visitors Program where we would find someone who had been active in the Kennedy period Nicholas Katzenbach, former Attorney General; Frank Mankiewicz, Robert Kennedys former press secretary ; Tom Wicker of the New York Times; Sander Vanocur of NBC; Stewart Udall, former Secretary of the Interior, and others. We would bring one of them to the Boston area or to Massachusetts for a day, give them to a particular community around Boston or in Massachusetts, collaborating especially with the League of Women Voters. The visitor typically would have a couple of interviews on radio and television. They would meet with social studies teachers in the schools. They would maybe have lunch with the Chamber of Commerce leadership. Meet with some college students. We were just giving a community access for a full day to someone who had rich experience and interesting perspectives. This is something that helped me later in my career in learning how to work with different groups on everything from an events arrangements level to working with the media to serving as a kind of a consultant and mediator. It was just another good piece of experience which I was able to draw on later.
GESELBRACHT: Now were you in charge of this operation?
HACKMAN: No. A man named Dan Fenn was named as the first Director of the Kennedy Library probably around 1971. Dan was first the Director of the Library in progress. And John Stewart who had hired me, who had been the Director of the Oral History Project, John became Fenns deputy. During most of my time in Waltham, I reported to John. But when I became this Coordinator of Special Programs or whatever the title was, I probably reported directly to Dan Fenn, at least on some of the projects, because the things we were doing, we were thinking of as kind of prototypes, or possibilities at least, for a permanent Kennedy Library wherever it was located. At that point, the decision had not been made that it would be built at Columbia Point. There was still a big battle as to whether it would go to a site near Harvard Square or to other alternatives.
GESELBRACHT: Did you have a staff working for you, or were you responsible for all these coordination duties on your own?
HACKMAN: I was able to draw on several staff people who didnt work for me full-time. There were some young people on the staff particularly who could work for me on a particular community visitor program, for example. I probably directly supervised only two, three, or four staff and then called on some other people. Some of the people I was supervising were doing the Robert Kennedy oral history editing and transcribing. I cant remember the exact lines that we drew; they didnt count for much in that kind of small operation. It was very fluid in those years I would say at least as far as I was concerned.
GESELBRACHT: How did you identify what would work in terms of bringing people in and taking them out to the community? What was effective, how did you recognize what wasnt going to work? What was the kind of structure that became apparent to you when you were trying to think how to match people with the opportunities in the community?
HACKMAN: Well in that situation you fairly quickly develop something like a template. You don't fill in every part of the template for every community. With Stewart Udall, for example, the longtime Secretary of the Interior, we brought him into Lowell, Massachusetts. Lowell, Massachusetts was a historical city in terms of the Industrial Revolution and the labor
movement and ethnic groups. One of the things that the City of Lowell was trying to think through was how it could use its history to revive itself. It was a very depressed, challenging area at that point. So we scheduled Udall for discussion with some of the town leaders after he had been taken on a tour of the old locks and mills and neighborhoods perhaps. Out of that, I believe, came some time later, perhaps several years, the proposal for the first National Urban Cultural Park, or something like that, folded into the National Park Service. But we would have taken Udall perhaps to meet with teachers who were teaching, if there was such a thing then, courses on the environment. We would relate the subject matter as much as we could to the background and interests of that person. If we brought in Tom Wicker, a distinguished journalist, he would perhaps meet with the nearby college journalism classes, or classes in current politics. Since we worked in communities with the League of Women Voters chapter as our coordinating partner, they almost always had good suggestions as to other organizations that would be interested and consequential. I don't recall that that part was all that challenging once we got into the program and had done it two or three times.
Most of these communities were small communities around Boston, though we went out to Springfield and the western part of the state a few times. In most cases, they were so pleased to have a household name coming to their community, and for free, that they were excited and usually amenable to suggestions and had good suggestions of their own. So it was a really good program and I was surprised that the Kennedy Library didnt keep it in that form. The later Kennedy Library when it was developed did bring in a lot of very distinguished speakers but mostly did that at the Kennedy Library as opposed to sending them out in the community. I think that a community visitor type program would have been something that almost every presidential library could have done with people who came out of the administration or who covered politics or were knowledgeable about it in that period. That would have been relatively easy to do in greater Kansas City or up and down the Hudson from Hyde Park or in lots of places around a presidential library. Once you get too far away in years, most of these potential visitors are dead and gone. But in the first 10-20 years after an administration, you could have done a lot with that as a kind of standard program. One of my frustrations with the National Archives and the Office of Presidential Libraries is that I always thought they should spot good things in one presidential library or another and then really promote it very actively to other Libraries almost as a best practices kind of thing. I didnt see a lot of that kind of leadership coming out of that office.
GESELBRACHT: I agree. Did you create the partnership with the League of Women voters, did you recognize that thats the partner you needed to help you?
HACKMAN: As in a lot of things, Dan Fenn, who was a longtime resident of the Boston area, had been a member of the Tariff Commission during the Kennedy Administration, taught at the Harvard Business School before and after that, had headed many organizations, participated in the Boston area, he knew everyone. So he knew Lucy Benson who at that point maybe was or had recently been the national president of the League of Women Voters and had been the leader in Massachusetts. So we met with her for lunch or something like that, and that idea came out of that conversation. Dan was from Lexington, Massachusetts and in many communities he would know people, and he knew some of these people who we brought to Massachusetts whod been in the Kennedy Administration because Dan had been in Washington early on involved in recruiting people for the Administration. So he just knew a lot of people. He was a wonderful resource as well as a wonderful human being. He made a lot of things possible once that operation was in the Boston area.
GESELBRACHT: So did you talk with him quite often about organizing these different programs?
HACKMAN: Yeah. I learned a lot.
GESELBRACHT: Would he come to you with an idea for he said, "You know, I talked to Udall last night. Hes going to be coming into town and give him a call" and that kind of thing?
HACKMAN: It would be more that we would talk about who we might be able to get or who might be appropriate for a certain area. Dan would usually either write the letter describing the program or get on the phone with whoever it was and invite them to come in. It probably would operate a little differently at different times whether we had the guest first or the interest of community first or we knew somebody was coming to town for some other reason. It usually took several months to set one of these days up and to get things organized. So it might work in different ways at different times. But I learned a lot from Fenn just because he knew so many different people in so many different organizations and because he was extremely open to ideas, very welcoming. He wasnt a directive person and he was much more helter-skelter than I ever was in my approach to things. I was more structured at that point in the way I did things and more organized I guess in some ways. So it was a good combination.
GESELBRACHT: When the guests arrived, did you drive him or her around? Is that part of your duty too?
HACKMAN: Yeah. Because usually I would be the person basically briefing them on what was coming up next and with some suggestions on who we were going to be talking to and what they might be interested in or what you might talk to them about. Often, if Dan Fenn had the whole day, he would be in the car and I would be in the car with whomever was coming in. One of the things we were trying to do was to build relationships that would endure for what would become the Kennedy Library proper. So we were always interested in putting somebody important in the community in the car with whomever the distinguished guest was. So you might have the principal of the high school on our way to the high school. Or you might have the owner of the local newspaper or the editor in the car while we were going down to meet with the journalists on the Lowell Sun or whatever the equivalent might be which again was a learning experience for me in terms of how you maximize the use of people who are coming in to do something for or with your institution. We probably should have done much more of that when I was at the Truman Library.
While I think of it Ray, I should mention that some years ago the Kennedy Library called four of us "founding fathers" together for a group oral history interview. That group was Dan Fenn, John Stewart, Larry Hackman, and Bill Moss who we hired to do oral history interviews several years after I came and then he also moved to the Waltham operation and served as the senior archivist, especially on records relating to foreign and military affairs. He wrote a book on oral history, a manual, and was later State Archivist of Tennessee. He died several years ago. Dan Fenn is over 90 and still teaching. John Stewart is 82 and still playing basketball and softball regularly. I am the lazy one of the bunch.
GESELBRACHT: Youve mentioned to me that you had some experience with the Kennedy Library involving an educational program that was decision-based that was later important to you when you came to the Truman Library. Could you describe that?
HACKMAN: I might not get the sequence exactly right, but I believe someone came to Dan Fenn, the president and maybe the chief rabbi of Temple Mishkan Tefila, a conservative Jewish congregation in Newton, Massachusetts, just west of Boston. They wanted to do something ambitious with the Kennedy Library. Out of those conversations came a proposal to do a Presidential Festival at Temple Mishkan Tefilaa festival that ideally would involve to some degree all of the presidential libraries. That desire eventually evolved into the loan of artifacts, at least one but usually several on loan from each library, to be displayed in exhibit cases at the Temple. This included the famous Torah from the Truman Library, now on permanent display there. We brought in interesting artifacts from every presidential library mainly as an audience draw. We brought in a series of prominent speakers to give public presentations. I remember Arthur Schlesinger, for example, and a couple of former White House staff members. This all took place over a week or maybe two.
Quite in advance of the festival we had this idea to do something with decision-making. Perhaps at first we thought of developing case materials for group discussion. Dan was very accustomed to this approach in his teaching at Harvard Business School. I cant remember quite how the idea of doing a film evolved. But since it was basically my assignment, they eventually called me the executive producer of the film. We hired a firm from Cambridge, Envision Inc, to come in and work with us. And Dan knew a mechanical engineer on the faculty at MIT and he figured out how to make this film interactive by using electronic voting devices that you could be wired to theatre types seats in a small auditorium at the Temple. So we made this film and the core structure was a series of background points, mostly with the camera moving around on still photos a la Ken Burns, then a question related to the background, then a pause for discussion and a formal decision, then on to the next issue. You would stop several times during this 16 mm film to discuss and vote, literally stop the projector. The film was about Kennedys 1962 Executive Order on discrimination in housing. The name of it was With the Stroke of a Pen. Kennedy had committed himself in the 1960 campaign to sign an Executive Order on discrimination in housing. So we provided in the film background about that commitment, what some of the political and legal issues were related to this matter. Then at appropriate times we stopped the film and the script explained the political and advocacy situation just before the November 1962 mid term elections "Would you sign the Order?" Then, if so, "Would you sign it before or after the election?" Then after further legal background, "Would you sign a narrow Order or a broad Order?" The case was basically a consideration of moral, political and legal issues.
We used the film with groups during the Festival and then in some other places with audiences ranging from junior high school students to former members of the White House staff, from academics from Harvard and Brandeis to general audiences, a wide range. And it worked with everyone. Audiences got super engaged in it. With some of the higher level groups, they would go from the film and treat it then in a much fuller discussion around the table with people talking about it in a more sophisticated way. The film was 17 minutes, but a group of high school students might be there for lets say 45 minutes, seeing the film, stopping for discussion and for voting, then for reflective discussion after the film was over. That film won a number of silver medals or bronze medals in various competitions that Envision entered it in. I still have copies of some of those certificates somewhere or maybe they're at the Truman Library by now, Im not sure.
I left the Kennedy operation soon thereafter to go to Washington to work for NHPRC, but I carried that experience in my mind for 20 years before I came to the Truman Library. When I thought about Presidential Libraries in the meantime, which was not often, I thought also
about what I felt the Kennedy Library proper had become, and that film often popped into my mind as an example of something that was highly engaging. It was highly respectful of an audience, gave them accurate background information but didnt draw the conclusions for them, challenged them to think about it and to go through a logical, informative decision making process, overall an experience that would give them something to take away from their visit that they would want to think and talk further about and share with others. They would almost certainly have learned from the experience in a participatory and interesting way. So that small one-time experience was useful to me when I got to the Truman Library and it influenced both the decision theaters in the presidential exhibition and most of all the White House Decision Theater.
GESELBRACHT: No, I agree. It sounds like you're describing the White House Decision Center and the way it basically runs and the way people react to it. All different kinds of people reacting as the different types of people you brought into this film reacted.
HACKMAN: As the years went by I sometimes visited other presidential libraries, and more of them after I was at Truman. Several of the other presidential libraries did something around presidential decisions but these were not as informative, challenging, engaging, open ended. Their goal, I recall at Reagan in particular, seemed to be to promote the reputation of the president. I never could understand and I still don't to this day why presidential libraries don't take a more challenging approach with their visitors. And I dont mean challenging them by overwhelming them with information, which most do. What I mean is conveying one way or another the message that history is never settled and that policies and events need to be rethought and that visitors can be engaged in that process. I believe that many people will go away pleased and excited by an experience that is not simply predictable and that provides for contingencies. Involving them in rethinking and remaking decisions from the past is a good way to convey that.
GESELBRACHT: Its thrilling to me to hear the origins of our White House Decision Center which well talk about more later. I think the Decision Center is well one of the most important parts of the legacy that youve left to the Truman Library, as vital today as it was when it was first opened, maybe even growing in vitality as it matures and flourishes. As you're describing this, Im wondering why the National Archives and Presidential Libraries haven't done more of this type of thing. I cant help but think that what you're describing at the Kennedy Library in those old days was a very creative process that you were a part of. Maybe you were primarily responsible for that, maybe you had good partners, but there was vitality and creativity in it. Maybe those things are just rare and thats why we havent seen more of it in the Libraries. Before we leave the Kennedy Library, youve mentioned to me that you got some sense while working there of the presidential library as an institution with strengths but also weaknesses and problems. Can you describe how this model you were perceiving struck you?
HACKMAN: Probably not very in any great detail, Ray. Its hard for me to sort out when I formed certain impressions. I believe I had visited the Truman Library at least once before I came for that interview which led me to the Kennedy Oral History Project job. I returned maybe a couple of times over the years. I was not impressed with the public part, with the exhibit part. It just seemed to me that having rooms filled with Presidential gifts, big objects which had no meaningful historical relevance to the Truman period other than they were given to the White House, that always disappointed me that you couldnt do something more impactful and engaging for the public. And Im sure that the public wasnt very discontented with it. The publics expectations of presidential libraries I thought have been
very low. I think they're higher now, but they were not very demanding.
Over the years, I went back two or three times to the Kennedy Library after it opened. The Kennedy Library, because of the magic of the name Kennedy and the continued family involvement in politics and public affairs and so on, always drew a lot of people that I thought of as on a pilgrimage to a great cathedral where the saints bones were kept rather than looking for a more substantive experience. Which is too much to hope for, I know. But it seems to me the Kennedy Library pandered is too strong a word did not do much in the way of its exhibits and the experience that the public had while they were at that site other than wow them with a few objects and spaces and appeals to nostalgia. I don't think you went away with any of your impressions changed or that you had gotten involved in anything in any depth that really challenged you. It was an impressive site and a strong architectural statement, as I.M. Peis buildings often are.
Ray, you had written a question somewhere, would I have thought of working for any other Presidential Library than Truman? And the answer is no. After I left that Kennedy Library pilot phase, I never had any interest in going to work for a presidential library except for Truman, and that one mainly for more personal reasons. So I did not come to Truman feeling that presidential libraries are just the greatest thing and Im honored to be a part of such a system, and now I just need to preside over something thats doing wonderful work and thats going to be a capstone for me. It was quite far from that view.
GESELBRACHT: Your next stop along the way, on the road to being Director of the Truman Library, was at the National Historical Publications Commission, soon to become the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. How did you make that next move and when did you arrive?
HACKMAN: That was as surprising a move as falling into the job with the Kennedy Oral History Project. I had never thought about having a career in archives. I had never read deeply or hardly at all about archival theory or methods. I had never done much in the way of collections management, and what I had done, I did not think I did well a bit on the Robert Kennedy papers at the Kennedy Library. I had known almost nothing about NHPC (The National Historical Publications Commission), and I didnt pay any attention to it. Id hardly known it was part of the National Archives.
A group of state archivists had lobbied for several years in the early Seventies to have a separate national program created which would provide substantial funding to assist state archives which they might then use some of it to do other things in their states to improve archival conditions. That advocacy effort did not succeed on their terms; instead, the Congress decided to take an existing commission, the National Historical Publications Commission, and add an R for Records to it. The National Archives was given a program which it never asked for and frankly did not want. I took a call one day from Ann Campbell who was the first paid Executive Director of the Society of American Archivists, located in Chicago. Ann told me I ought to think about applying for the new position as director of the new Historical Records Program at NHPRC. Maybe she knew I was restless at Kennedy. I didnt want to stay a Kennedy person for my career. Ann Campbell had been on our staff at the Kennedy Oral History Program. Shed been the chief editor and administrative officer if I recall correctly. She was incredibly bright and hard-working and personable.
So I looked into this. I dont know who I talked to but surely I must have talked to some people who knew NHPC and also could provide some background on the new program.
Sandi and I liked living in Belmont, in the Boston area generally, we had two young children, but I didnt see other opportunities on the horizon, in part because I did not know what I wanted to do in career terms. I knew I didnt want to continue to do Kennedy stuff for very long. The more I looked at this new position, the more I could see that there might be both another great learning experience and opportunities to develop a new and significant national program. I say that, maybe thats the way I thought about it, but I really don't recall that with confidence.
So I tried to investigate the situation really carefully almost as if I were preparing to begin in the position before I had applied for it or been selected for it. Frank Burke in the National Archives had just become the new Executive Director of NHPRC and he wrote an article for the American Archivist some years ago about the early development of the Records Program, which he calls The Hackman Years. He recounts the large quantity of questions that I was asking and all of the materials, background that I was asking for, and all of the ideas that I was proposing as possible approaches before I even began work in Washington. When I did get there, Herb Angel, who was the former Deputy Archivist of the United States, had drafted initial regulations to set up the structure as to how the new program might operate within NHPRC. You don't really need to know all of this in this interview.
I took that job, and we packed up and moved back to Washington. I was there for five years. It was a third opportunity, another great learning experience for someone who didnt come really out of the archives community, and it meant a much greater level of complexity, scope, responsibility, and visibility for me. It helped me to understand as well as develop my leadership ability and some other skills as well. I had the opportunity, in fact was required, to know the archival community in a really rich sense. I came to know everybody it seemed in the leadership across the country, in all of the regional and state organizations, as well as in the Society of American Archivists. I learned a lot about many individual archives, both by visiting them but especially through their grant applications to the Historical Records Grant Program. I worked with the leadership of the profession over and over again, became involved personally in leadership in the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference and in the SAA. I learned a good amount about the issues facing the profession, what the current methodologies were and the best practices, about the issues that people were really grappling with at that point and who the key people and their projects were. And I began to develop my own sense of what the major challenges were and how they might be addressed.
In those days there was a very limited archival literature beyond the American Archivist journal. Our first records grant was to support the first five basic manuals on archives, how you do arrangement, description, reference, surveys, security. It was a kind of take-off period in some ways for the profession because the SAA had a full-time staff for the first time, was developing a formal publishing program for the first time, was much more ambitious and energetic and effective. The NHPRC Records Grant Program was new, and it created a statewide network of state coordinators and advisory boards appointed by the governor in every state according to NHPRC guidelines. For the first time in the states, people started assessing conditions and needs and setting priorities together. For the first time, the state archivists were called together by the NHPRC, usually at least once a year, to talk about common problems, talk about funding, begin to form kind of a nascent advocacy group on a broader scale than it had been when the legislation was passed. A new organization, the National Association of State Archives and Records Administration (NASARA) was created; it later became the NAGARA, the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators. They were regarded at times as rivals by
the SAA. Since the NHPRC supported some meetings of the state group, as well as making grants to the SAA, we often got caught in the middle of that.
I looked at hundreds of grant proposals to the NHPRC. As the Records Program director, I recommended them up or down, or to be modified or made condit