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.