Campus Digest: Winter 2024
News and happenings from around Boston College.
The Record Keeper
Meet Colleen Shogan ’97, the first woman archivist of the United States.
The National Archives and Records Administration might bring to mind an image of long, dusty hallways filled with filing cabinets, but the process of storing and categorizing documents and communications that are relevant to the nation’s historical record encompasses a lot more than that. After all, it’s not just the president’s paperwork that ends up in the National Archives. Among the records the agency, known as NARA, stores and maintains are the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, plus more everyday documentation such as the service records of veterans, immigration paperwork, maps, videos, and tweets. There are also testaments to the nation’s more painful history, such as slave ship manifests and broken treaties with Native American tribes. And now, all of that falls under the purview of Colleen Shogan ’97, who was confirmed as archivist of the United States last May, during a time when the importance of federal recordkeeping has never loomed so large.
Shogan, who majored in political science at BC, was first nominated to be archivist in August of 2022, but wasn’t confirmed until nine months later because of political squabbles on Capitol Hill. She is the eleventh person to hold the position, and the first woman to be confirmed in the role. (Several women have previously served as acting archivist.)
Shogan said she is excited to show up to work each day. “This is definitely the place I’m supposed to be,” she said. Her interest in American history dates back to her childhood in Pennsylvania, when her family took vacations to historic spots like Gettysburg. “That brought the history alive to me in a way that you can’t just get from in a book,” Shogan said. After graduating from Boston College, Shogan earned a PhD in American politics from Yale University, then worked as a legislative assistant to the Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman before spending seven years at the Congressional Research Service. She was working as senior vice president for the White House Historical Association when she got the call that the Biden Administration was interested in her for the archivist role.
Mark Falzone ’97, who has been friends with Shogan since their days at BC and worked with her on one of Senator Edward Kennedy’s reelection campaigns, was struck even then by the way she could hold her own with anybody. “She really cared about the philosophy of what she was doing, but also the practical consequences,” Falzone said. “And politics has both of those things.”
NARA is generally considered to be apolitical, but it’s recently been roiled by accusations of partisanship. After all, it was the agency’s efforts to recover files that former President Donald Trump took with him after leaving office that led to his eventual indictment on thirty-seven charges related to unlawfully retaining government documents at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. Republican suspicions of political motivations in that case certainly contributed to the delay in Shogan’s confirmation, even though she had no role in the effort to retrieve the documents, which began prior to her nomination for the post.
Shogan is far from a political ideologue, said Susan Combs, a Republican who was appointed to an assistant secretary role in the Department of the Interior during Trump’s presidency. “To this day, I do not know what her politics are,” said Combs, who worked closely with Shogan when they served together on the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission to organize events in 2020 that celebrated the hundred-year anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. “What I really liked then, and do now, is that she is very clear,” Combs said. “Very organized, very objective, very rigorous.”
“She’s just a very good manager,” said Matt Costello, who worked with Shogan during her time as vice president of the nonpartisan White House Historical Association, from 2020 until she left to become archivist in 2023. Costello recalled her having a particular knack for navigating the bureaucracies and differing timelines of government agencies that the association worked with. “She had the tact of being able to keep things moving but not being too pushy,” he said. “She had a very good diplomatic sense about her when it came to partnerships.”
Shogan said she hopes to clear the backlog of requests for service records that surged during the pandemic, and to make records more accessible to the general public. And with 2026 marking the nation’s 250th anniversary, she sees opportunities to further engage people in the records housed at the archive. Putting the Emancipation Proclamation on public display is just one of her ideas.
Most of all, Shogan said she wants to engage Americans in their country’s history, and she’s not particularly snobby about how that occurs. She’s all for it if people want to see the Declaration of Independence only because they’re in search of treasure, like Nicolas Cage in the beloved, if slightly ahistorical, National Treasure film series. “I think National Treasure can be a great entry point for people to get excited about it,” she said. “Come see us here at the National Archives, be exposed to all kinds of records and history.” Still, she cautioned visitors against getting their hopes up. “People aren’t running around with the Declaration,” she said with a smile. “We’re not rolling it up or passing it off to people.