Debra Steidel Wall was just a young teenager when during an eighth grade trip with her class at Mattituck Junior High School she first set eyes on Washington, D.C.
On June 3 she was named the deputy archivist of the National Archives, the No. 2 position in a federal department that has 3,500 employees, 44 locations throughout the United States and 10 billion paper documents.
“On that eighth grade field trip, that’s when I said ‘I want to live here. I want to come back here and be part of this,’” said Ms. Wall.
Wall last Thursday, at the end of her first week in her new position.
Ms. Wall graduated from Mattituck High School in 1984. She was raised on Little Neck Road in Cutchogue by her parents, Fran and Steve Steidel. Her father was a Suffolk County Police Officer and her mother was a teacher at the Ecumenical Nursery School at the Advent Lutheran Church in Mattituck. Her parents now live in Punta Gorda, Florida.
After leaving Mattituck, Ms. Wall studied history and government at Georgetown University, and then studied film in graduate school at American University, while working summers at the former Fishermen’s Rest restaurant in Cutchogue.
“When I first got here, I had no idea what the archives were. I was thinking of doing journalism or politics or something like that,” she said. “I thought I was interested in politics, but what I was really interested in was public service. I did my senior thesis on film history, and the archives has many films. Silent films were my specialty.”
Ms. Wall began her career at the National Archives in 1991 as an archivist in the motion picture, sound and video unit of the archives, and over the past 20 years has worked in nearly every aspect of the organization.
“I always managed to have opportunities. In almost any work you’re doing, you can find the part of it that makes change,” she said. “I went from trainee work into policy, information technology and data standards, then into more policy in the chief of staff role for the past four years. I’m 45. I’ve been here 20 years, but around here that’s kind of a newbie. We have a lot of people who are very dedicated to the mission and stay here for their entire career.”
But even in the relatively short time she’s been with the National Archives, the nature of access to information has changed dramatically.
“A lot of the stuff we have is unique. In the past, if you wanted something you’d have to send us a letter and ask what we have.
Now we have all of our descriptions on the internet, 72 million records have been archived and we’re open 24 hours a day,” she said. “We really need to change our culture. We’ve been a fairly traditional place. Up until a year and a half ago, we had policies that wouldn’t let us go to Facebook or Flickr on our work computers. Now we have a group of people who work for us who are using Flickr and Twitter as a way to engage people and get feedback from our users. We’re trying to stay at the forefront. In a very short time, we’ve become the leader in government.”
Ms. Wall said that most of the department’s new hires have an innate understanding about the way information has changed and, along with it, the methods that the National Archives’ customers use to access information.
“The agency’s biggest challenge is electronic records. We have material that’s on floppy disks or Betamax video,” she said. “Our requirement is to keep electronic records for the life of the republic, so we have to upgrade that.”
Ms. Wall now lives in Silver Spring, Md. with her husband, Michael Wall, and her seven-year-old daughter, Lily. She divides most of her time between the National Archives administrative office in College Park, Md. and the archives’ museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and works long hours.
“We run the presidential library system throughout the country. We run the federal register, which publishes government documents. We run the government’s security classification program, which is a pretty big deal. We also make grants to state and local archives,” she said.
Ms. Wall serves directly under David S. Ferriero, the 10th archivist of the United States.
“Debra is passionate about the Archives’ mission and history,” he said in a press release announcing Ms. Wall’s appointment.
“She is forward-looking and open to change. …She understands the need for us to put stakeholders and customers at the center of what we do.”
And she’s also a kid from Cutchogue who, once upon a time, took a long class bus trip to Washington that changed her whole life.