A former president’s library has a new archivist

It’s hard to believe that Richard Nixon left office nearly 50 years ago. Some seasoned observers well remember that that image of a waving Nixon boarding the helicopter, after resigning from office. Now the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California, has a new director. Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with Tamara Martin.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin And we should point out that in joining the National Archives and Records Administration, you are also joining the federal government, as it were, from the California state government, where you were the archivist there. Tell us what attracted you to this particular position, because sounds like the archivist for California is a pretty big job.

Tamara Martin It was it was a tremendous opportunity to serve as the California state archivist. But I am excited to be here at the Nixon Library as a part of the National Archives. I’ve loved history ever since I was a child. I grew up going to museums. And so the idea of having the opportunity to work for the National Archives is kind of like a dream come true.

Tom Temin All right. Well, we’re glad to have you. And tell us what happens at the library in terms of what an archivist would do now, because I would think everything connected to the Nixon administration and the Nixon really an amazingly long political life would be all gathered in there already.

Tamara Martin So we have a wonderful collection here. There’s approximately 46 million pages of documents, 3700 hours of recorded presidential conversations, which are also known as the White House tapes.

Tom Temin Yes, the infamous dicta belt tapes, right?

Tamara Martin That’s correct. Yes. And they’re all in the process or have already been digitized. So that’s quite exciting for broader public access. We also have still photographs here. We have several hundred thousand of those, as well as additional audio recordings and over 42,000 state and public gifts. And so our archival team here, they work directly with the records to process and provide access to them. And then they also assist our in-person and our virtual researchers here as well.

Tom Temin Do new things ever turn up related to, that belong in the Nixon Library and come to you?

Tamara Martin There are at times some things that do come in as perhaps private donations, so people who might have things relating to President Nixon or perhaps that are former administration officials who have things to add to the collection. But for the most part, most of the objects are already here, part of the collection.

Tom Temin Sure. And what happens day to day then? What do you do as as director? There’s a lot of visitors have come to every year.

Tamara Martin So each year we have thousands of visitors who come here. We have a nine acre campus here that we share with the Richard Nixon Foundation. And so if you were to come to our beautiful library, you would come into the lobby and you have a chance to tour the museum, which includes our permanent gallery, which showcases and provides information about the life of Richard Nixon, as well as our temporary exhibit gallery, which currently has an exhibit call captured shot down in Vietnam, which focuses on the stories of brave Americans who endured the harsh realities of being a prisoner of war during Vietnam. We also have the birthplace here. So where Richard Nixon was born that you can visit as well as the Marine One helicopter that he used on his final day in office. So day to day, we welcome guests here and invite them to learn more about our 37th president. We also work closely with other presidential libraries, as well as other universities and colleges and educational institutions to provide programing and provide broader access to the collection for the general public.

Tom Temin I was going to say there’s a couple of presidential libraries in California. There’s the Ronald Reagan, but then the rest of them are all over the country. Talk about how they interact, the various museums and what kinds of practices you share.

Tamara Martin There are 15 presidential libraries across the United States, and so we work together collaboratively on different initiatives throughout the National Archives, such as our Civics for All of US initiative, which is educational materials provided for K-through-12 students as well as adult learners about civic education and how that relates to the records of the National Archives. We also collaborate on things that our presidents might have both worked on or that might have occurred around the same time period that our presidents were in office. And then I would say that the presidential libraries are also a wonderful network of collaboration between the different teams. So you have a wide net of resources to be able to rely upon if you have questions.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Tamara Martin. She is the newly appointed director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library. That’s part of the National Archives and Records Administration. And just personally, you said you have an interest in history. What have you learned, perhaps about Richard Nixon that you might not have known when you got there and your general reaction to what you found out about old Dick Nixon?

Tamara Martin So I see every day as an opportunity to learn and grow. And so it was really important to me when I started here that I was able to learn as much as I could about President Nixon as quickly as I could. So to help with that, I’ve been doing a lot of reading. I read a book about President Nixon every other week or so over the summer. I’ve read nine different books, including “President Nixon, Six Crises” and Julia Eisenhower’s, “Pat Nixon, The Untold Story.” And so many people do know that President Nixon opened relations with China. He ended U.S. involvement in Vietnam. There was the Apollo 11 moon landing in the space program and, of course, Watergate. But many people may not know. And it was new information for me, but I was interested to learn that he was also involved with creating the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, the Clean Water Act, in 1972. He also worked on Title IX education amendments in 1972 and the all volunteer force in 1973. He was also involved in the desegregation of Southern schools. He ended the draft. He worked on the war on Cancer and was president during the 26th Amendment, which was passed in 1971 that lowered the voting age to 18. So it’s quite an extensive legacy and a lot of different things that he worked on across all different areas that really have a tremendous impact on the things that we do today.

Tom Temin Yes, it was a period of amazing ferment. I had a draft number when it ended, so I recall. Thank you, President Nixon. You know, the Congress, I mean, the whole thing changed so dramatically. We still in some ways haven’t figured out the best way to manage an all-volunteer force. And we have an amazing force as it is. Do you get visitors or queries from the remaining members of the Nixon dynasty, the family?

Tamara Martin So we do work very closely with our foundation, who works very closely with the family, and it’s a tremendous honor to be able to work with them and to have them involved. It’s been a great thing.

Tom Temin It’s said that at the wedding of his daughter, Richard Nixon introduced himself to a guest as General Eisenhower’s grandson’s father in law. So he did have a self-deprecating side to himself. I guess the final question is, you mentioned you read a book almost every other week about Richard Nixon. You’ve read nine so far. What is the interest from scholars that you get? Are there still body of scholars that come out there and maybe want to see some of the original documents, some of the obscure letters and so forth that are still doing? I mean, it’s like Lincoln. There’s a new book on Lincoln every year. I think there’s more books on Lincoln than just about anybody. But what about Nixon?

Tamara Martin So we do have a fairly busy research room. We have scholars that come from all over the world to do research with us, and we work very hard to process records and open them as quickly as possible for the public to view. Recently, we opened two new collections that focused on White House advance files, as well as the office files of Donald Rumsfeld. And recently we also had 112 boxes of previously classified materials that opened up that are now available for research that cover a whole host of foreign and domestic policy related items. So as things become available, there are always new things to research and learn. So there’s always information available for authors or scholars or visitors to come in and learn things they might not have known before.

Tom Temin Yeah, as the declassification schedules come around and you get more of these records coming in and they’re all paper too, aren’t they? I mean, there’s no computers back in 19, late 1960s and 1970s, but I doubt there was much computerization of any White House records at that time.

Tamara Martin Our recent releases have been paper. The other types of formats we do have are the audiovisual, so the photographs and the video and the audio recordings. But there were not electronic records like we see today.

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