The Archivist of the United States (2023)


This lesson plan opens with reflective questions that ask students to consider the importance of retaining historical and governmental documents. Students then watch, analyze, and respond to an introductory video that briefly introduces students to the role of the National Archives. Next, students explore a video clip that details recent innovations and changes at the National Archives. Students then engage in a choice board exploration activity, where they choose to study four of nine different topics, including the declassification process, Archives controversies, and the role of social media. The lesson concludes with a reflective blog post reading and written summative prompt.


  • SET UP

    This lesson offers several options for you to use with your students whether you are teaching in class, using a hybrid model, or engaging through distance learning. It can be completed in steps as a class or students can move at their own pace and complete the activities independently.

    You can post links to the videos in the lesson along with the related handouts and engage in discussion to share responses on a discussion board or learning management system.

    You can also save and share the following Google resources for students to use with this lesson.

    Handout: Graphic Organizer (Google Docs).

    Handout: Choice Board (Google Slides).

    In Google, choose "File" then "Make a Copy" to get your own copy. You can make any needed adjustments in the instructions such as which activities students need to complete, when it is due, etc. and then make it available to them via Google.


    Pose the following brainstorming questions to your students, directing them to record their responses in their graphic organizer, share with a partner, and then with the class if they choose:

    • Why is it important to keep records of the past?
    • How does the United States government store its records?

    Play this introductory video clip [Clip #1] (0:50) for your students. Direct your students to answer the following questions on their graphic organizer:

    • What is the National Archives building a “symbol” of?
    • According to David Ferriero, what two purposes does the National Archives building serve?

    Direct your students to their graphic organizers to view and define the vocabulary terms that will appear in the lesson in the chart in their graphic organizer handout. The vocabulary words are also listed to the right on this webpage. We recommend having your students define and present the terms in a jigsaw activity to save time.

    Depending on time and resources, you may consider having your students define and present the terms in a Frayer's Model activity, where each student takes one or two words. Students can then post their models around the room for reference throughout the lesson. Note: this is not an all-encompassing list of terms included in each video. We recommend you previewing the video clips to determine any necessary additions/subtractions to this list for your specific students.


    Direct students to the engagement section of their graphic organizers. Have students view the engagement clip [Clip #2] (2:22), take notes, and answer the questions in their graphic organizers. Encourage your students to share their responses with a partner or small group when finished.

    • What was David Ferriero’s “moonshot” as Archivist?
    • Why was this goal “right on target,” and what did it illustrate about user experience?
    • Other than viewing the Founding Documents, what do people “most want” from the Archives?

    Next, have your students choose (or assign) four of the nine topics listed on the choice board (Google Slides). Have students watch the clip and answer the questions for each section. Direct students to prepare to present their findings with the class when finished.

  • Clip #3: The National Archives Building (4:51). This 1953 documentary explained the activities of the National Archives and Records Administration, including how documents are cleaned, how records are organized, and what kinds of records are stored there. The film was produced for the archives by the U.S. Air Force.

    • Why was the National Archives established?
    • What does the National Archives building hold?
    • Which three documents are held within the “historic shrine?”
    • What other objects and documents are in the exhibition hall?
    • What “precautions” have been taken to protect the documents?
  • Clip #4: America's Founding Documents (4:23). Archivist of the United States David Ferriero discusses the role of the National Archives in protecting and displaying the original copies of America's founding documents.

    • What are some of the original documents on display at the National Archives in Washington, DC?
    • Why is the rotunda kept dark? What are some of the other measures that the Archives take to ensure the preservation of the documents?
    • What are the “most moving” experiences for David Ferriero?
    • What do the murals in the rotunda depict?
    • Describe the “petition” process for amending the Constitution.
  • Clip #5: Social Media (7:57). Retiring Archivist of the United States David Ferriero talked about the National Archives' use of social media.

    • What are citizen archivists and what role do they play?
    • What does David Ferriero “embrace” Wikipedia?
    • According to Ferriero, what does the “wikipedian-in-residence” do?
    • Summarize the Wikipedia “learning experience” that Ferriero shares.
    • How does Ferriero characterize Twitter? What relationship does Twitter have with the National Archives and Library of Congress?
  • Clip #6: Declassification (3:47). Retiring Archivist of the United States David Ferriero talked about the declassification process.

    • According to David Ferriero, why must the National Archives hold Census records for 72 years before release?
    • What did Ferriero find about his family in the 1950 Census records?
    • What did President Obama establish in 2009?
    • What role does the National Archives have in the declassification process?
    • Why does it take awhile to process FOIA requests?
  • Clip #7: Presidential Libraries (6:14). Author Anthony Clark discussed presidential libraries, how they are created and run, as well as their significance to history.

    • Why does a President's version of history get told right away?
    • Explain the process of building a presidential library and the role of the National Archives.
    • Describe the “awkward position” that the National Archives has in running presidential libraries.
    • How did the FDR library impact future presidential libraries?
    • Explain the costs associated with operating presidential libraries.
  • Clip #8: Presidential Records Act (4:09). Lee White of the National Coalition for History talked about the Presidential Records Act.

    • What did the Presidential Records Act (1978) do?
    • According to Lee White, what was the “genesis” of the law?
    • Before the law, who controlled Presidential records? What changed with President Franklin D. Roosevelt?
    • What two roles does the National Archives play with Presidential records?
    • Who determines what should be preserved as a record?
  • Clip #9: Other Roles (6:37). Retiring Archivist of the United States David Ferriero talked about other roles of the Archives.

    • Why does David Ferriero say it is important to host a yearly July 4th reading of the Declaration of Independence at the Archives?
    • Describe the Equal Rights Amendment “controversy” and issue.
    • What role does the Archives have with Constitutional amendments?
    • What is the purpose of the “Remembering Vietnam” exhibit? How did the production of the exhibit impact Ferriero’s view of the war?
    • What role does the Archives have with military records?
  • Clip #10: Controversies (3:11). Retiring Archivist of the United States David Ferriero talked about two controversies that have recently affected the National Archives.

    • Read this article (National Archives) about the JFK Records before viewing the video.
    • Why will the JFK Assassination Records controversy “never end?”
    • What does David Ferriero hope “full, public access” to the JFK Assassination Records do?
    • According to Ferriero, what happened with the women’s suffrage photo controversy?
    • What “lesson” did the Archives learn from the controversy?
  • Clip #11: Future Archivists (5:53). Retiring Archivist of the United States David Ferriero talked about his thoughts for his successor.

    • How does David Ferriero describe his preferred successor?
    • How has Ferriero’s previous experience as a librarian impacted his work? What qualifications should future Archivists have?
    • What “advice” would Ferriero share with his successor?
    • How long can Archivists serve and how do they come into the position? How long does Ferriero think is long enough of a tenure?
    • Why does Ferriero think his job has become controversial?

    Before your students respond to the final writing prompt, have them view the By the Numbers: 2010-2022 blog post by David Ferriero. Have your students respond to the questions, directing them to record their responses in their graphic organizer, share with a partner, and then with the class if they choose:

    • How many views did National Archives records receive on Wikipedia in 2021?
    • From where do the National Archives draw their “metadata and digital objects?”
    • Choose one of “The 10 Most Viewed Records in the Catalog in 2021” and describe what you see.
    • What are the roles of the “Innovation Hub” and “History Hub?”
    • Describe the data available in the 1950 Census records that were recently released.

    Allow time for your students to prepare their findings from the lesson with their peers. After your students are finished sharing their findings from the exploration activity with the class, direct them to complete the final culminating writing prompt in their graphic organizers, and have students share their responses, comparing their perspectives with their classmates' perspectives: Having now learned about the history and operations of the National Archives and the work of the Archivist of the United States, describe the impact of both on the country. Be sure to include evidence from the video clips in the lesson to support your argument.

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Additional Resources

  • On This Day: FDR Lays Cornerstone of First Presidential Library
  • Video Clip: The Presidential Records Act and Former President Donald Trump
  • Video Clip: Reel America - Your National Archives
  • Bell Ringer: The National Archives and America's Founding Documents
  • Bell Ringer: Presidential Libraries
  • Bell Ringer: The Process of Amending the Constitution
  • Bell Ringer: Protecting America's Founding Documents
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