Q&A with Jan Zastrow

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) personal archivist, Jan Zastrow, has a long history of records management and preservation. An advocate for the profession, Zastrow recently wrote an academic article describing the role of Capitol Hill archivists, to be published later this year in Archival Issues. In an interview with The Hill, she talked about the unique work done by archivists on the Capitol, how she got involved on Capitol Hill and what she hopes to see change in the field.

Q: What is your official job title?

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I’m currently working as archivist in the office of Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid. And I’m actually here on a professional leave of absence from the University of Hawaii, where I’m the head of the archives and manuscripts department. And I’m also the congressional papers archivist. And that’s how I got to know folks here in the Senate. I would come once a year and meet with our Hawaii delegates to U.S. Congress and I would advise them on records management and archival issues, of course in hopes that they would eventually leave their collections to us at the university. But even if not, we still wanted to ensure that the papers were being preserved for their research value. 

Q: In a nutshell, what do archivists on Capitol Hill do?

Archiving here is a niche market. It’s very specific to Congress. What all archivists do here is records management. That’s their main function — to organize records that are being created in the office ... and to make sure that they’re preserved for the future. 

We maintain indexes or inventories of our collections. This can be lists of memorabilia, this can be photographs, this can be audio/visual materials. But I should back up a little here. The papers of the Congress members are considered personal property. They are not considered federal records. They can take them to the landfill if they want. They can store them in their basement if they want. They can [start a] bonfire if they want. They don’t have to do anything with them. So what we do as archivists, we make sure everybody knows what to save, and then we try to preserve it as best we can. It’s entirely up to the member to: a) choose to preserve the materials for history; b) find a repository; and c) employ somebody to help organize the records before they’re sent out. So it’s completely optional. And that’s why the dozen or so members in the Senate who have archivists are showing a great deal of foresight and a great deal of regard for the historical record. Because here they’re taking the time ... to preserve the history and legacy of Congress.

Q: How do Congress members acquire an archivist? 

There’s really two ways. One is to call Karen Paul, who is the Senate archivist, and she then helps them set up a job description and advertises it in the appropriate listservs. The other way is they will ask other offices that have an archivist, usually talking to the chiefs of staff, and say, “How did you get this person, and what do you think?”

Q: What are people’s reactions when they hear what you do for a living? Does everyone know what it is?

In Washington, yes. I mean, you go to a cocktail party and somebody is an attorney, somebody is a legislative assistant, somebody is an archivist, and you don’t have to explain. And I must say this is so delightful. Documentation is very important here. Managing your information, the benefit of doing that, is immediately understood in Washington. So I’m loving that. In other places, they might say, “Archivist — what is that? How do you say that?” They say, “Anarchist?” You never know what they’re going to say. So it’s a delight in Washington, because they do know what archivists do. 

Q: What are some of your specialized responsibilities working for Reid?

As the archivist for the majority leader, I’m often asked this question. I try to encourage the creation of some sort of historical record of the decisionmaking process, but to be honest, much of that business is conducted offline; there’s no tangible record of it. It might be through a phone call, it might be through a personal conversation, but there’s not a lot of documentation.

Q: If archivists had an emblem, what would it be?

In my opinion, the perfect symbol of archivists would be the god Janus ... who has two faces, one looking to the future, one looking to the past. And I love that, because we’re saving archives for the future, so that the future can have a past.