Out of the Vaults
National Archives’ Hill Liaison Moves On After
Just like most Americans, John Constance first stepped into the National Archives building on a school field trip. But unlike his classmates, Constance ended up spending 35 years there.
Today, Constance ends his lengthy tenure with the agency, retiring as the director of Congressional affairs and communications for the National Archives and Records Administration.
Constance, who said he always had a love for history and politics, describes the National Archives building as akin to a “national cathedral or temple.” [IMGCAP(1)]
“When you walk into the rotunda and see the documents for the first time and recognize what the responsibility is of this agency to preserve documents like that and make them accessible to the American public … that’s pretty magical,” Constance said.
After working at a variety of posts within the agency, Constance eventually came to his current position, as a liaison between the National Archives and Capitol Hill.
“I had the ability in my career to combine that sense of history and magic … with representing an organization like this on Capitol Hill,” Constance said.
Part of his job entails informing Members of Congress, who are responsible for funding oversight, about the financial needs of the agency.
“But the most enjoyable part to me is determining ways where we can use the assets of the archives … to illustrate to Capitol Hill and to the world what we do here for a living, what the functions are of this agency,” Constance said.
For example, he remembers one project in 1995 commemorating the 50th anniversary of World War II. The National Archives presented 45 Members of Congress, who also were veterans of the war, their stories during the era through public records.
“I think they might not have been aware, like many, many Americans, that they are in the National Archives not just as Members of Congress,” Constance said.
As the National Archives representative on Capitol Hill, Constance has dealt with having to secure funding even through fiscally difficult times.
“There are an awful lot of priorities that Congress is trying to balance in the federal budget,” Constance said.
Constance said he is most proud of being part of the team that secured funding for the National Archives in College Park, Md., with the help of Members from both sides of the aisle. The state-of-the-art facility was a $130 million project at a time when the agency’s budget “wasn’t much more than that,” he said.
A Baltimore native, Constance began his work at the National Archives as an intern while still at the College of William & Mary. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in government, Constance returned for another internship and worked his way to a full-time position with the agency’s National Audiovisual Center. His first months with the National Archives were a hectic time, with the agency seeking funding for a declassification project following the Pentagon Papers.
Throughout his years on the job, Constance said he has seen many changes within the agency, including the growing importance of electronic records.
“When I came here, we referred to our electronic records as the ‘machine-readable,’” Constance said.
Today, the agency leads in the industry of archiving and preservation as it develops ways to capture, preserve and make electronic records available to the public.
But Constance said the agency still experiences the same difficulties it has in the past — finding the necessary resources, buildings and the right staff to preserve records.
“We are always a growth business,” Constance said. “When you get a new decade of records, you can’t go back and throw away the old records.”
Constance is retiring from his position at the National Archives to become the new director of government relations and public affairs for the Legal Services Corp. The nonprofit organization, created by Congress in 1974, promotes equal access to justice and provides civil legal services for low-income families.
“I came [to the National Archives] and had helped, with a lot of my colleagues, preserve the Constitution over the years,” Constance said. “Now, I get the opportunity to work with people that are dedicated to making the Constitution work.”
Constance said he will miss the people he has worked during his time at the National Archives, some he met during his early years as an intern.
“We have a very, very dedicated, very intelligent and capable work force, when you get to represent people like that on the Hill, it’s a pretty light load in many ways,” Constance said.
But he does not plan to be away long. Constance said he wants to come back to the archives stacks from time and time to take a sniff.
“There’s a particular bouquet about archives and records that unless you experienced it, you don’t have the appreciation for it yet,” Constance said.