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For the record: We visit Colleen Shogan, the first woman appointed U.S. Archivist

The U.S. Archives contain 13.5 <em>billion</em> records. Above the National Archives building in Washington, D.C.
J. David Ake
The U.S. Archives contain 13.5 billion records. Above the National Archives building in Washington, D.C.

Colleen Shogan loves being surrounded by documents. The affable former political science professor is standing in her sunlit office next to the original copy of the joint resolution Congress passed to approve the 19th Amendment in 1919, giving women the right to vote.

"It's emblematic of the 80 years it took to get to this point," Shogan says.

You can see the document here:

/ National Archives
National Archives

Shogan is the first woman ever appointed to be National Archivist. Her job is to make sure that the nation's history — through its documents — is preserved. The archives contain 13.5 billion records. Everything from the Constitution to the 19th Amendment to the papers your grandfather might have submitted to join the U.S. Army.

Shogan grew up in a working class neighborhood just outside Pittsburgh. She was a first generation college student. She went on to be a professor, then a Senate staffer, then deputy director of the Congressional Research Service. In her spare time, she devoured mystery novels.

"They're puzzles, and I like to solve puzzles," Shogan says. Not only solve them, but write them. Since 2015, Shogan has published eight murder mystery novels as part of her Washington Whodunit series. They're all set in places she's worked, with titles such as Larceny in the Library, Homicide in the House, and Stabbing in the Senate.

"She creates a world in each of her books," Shogan's editor, Jennifer McCord told NPR. McCord says the vivid settings drew her into Shogan's writing in the first place.

McCord won't be working with Shogan for a while, however. Shogan is holding off on writing murder novels while she's working as National Archivist. Perhaps the role is controversial enough without her killing off senators.

The functions of the National Archives received nationwide attention last fall. Just three days after Shogan was officially nominated, the FBI raided former President Trump's homein search of documents that should have been safely archived at the conclusion of his presidency.

The result was intense scrutiny during both Shogan's nomination hearings in November of 2022 and February of this year, though she couldn't be briefed on the details of the document cases until after she was confirmed in May. Instead, Shogan was asked questions such as "You posted on Twitter bemoaning the dropping of mask requirements for children, including those under the age of five. Do you remember that post?" by Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri.

Shogan takes it all in stride. In her office, she shows a reporter another significant document in the Archive's vast collection. It's Gerald Ford's 1974 pardon of Richard Nixon (you can see it in full below). "We could focus a lot on our problems, and misdeeds by our leaders," she tells me, "but here's an example of someone trying to think not just for his immediate future, but what would be best for the country."

Documents record and remind us of other divisive times the United States has been through, and all that Americans can learn from them.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

/ National Archives
National Archives
/ National Archives
National Archives

Tilda Wilson