About the National Archives

Saving History: The Challenges We Face

John W. Carlin
Archivist of the United States

Address to the Alabama Historical Association
Mobile, Alabama

April 17, 1998


Ladies and gentlemen, I regard it as an honor to address the Alabama Historical Association. I've had a delightful time today learning something of your history here in Mobile, and of your fine archival institutions, such as the Mobile Municipal Archives and the archives in the University of South Alabama. Even before I got here I had reason to know that these were fine archives because they won grants in national competition from an organization I chair--the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.

The NHPRC is the grant-making arm of the National Archives and Records Administration. And the NHPRC has made grants to many other Alabama organizations as well. These grants have totaled $1,430,000 for fourteen records projects and two documentary publications. Included was a recent grant to the Alabama Department of Archives and History for regrants to encourage the management and preservation of local government records all across your state. That is important to me, because as a former state governor I know how many Federal programs actually get implemented at the state and local level, and as Archivist of the United States, I know those state and local records must be cared for if we are to document national programs adequately.

I come before you tonight with a feeling of awe, however, as well as appreciation. I'm not the first Archivist of the United States to speak in Alabama. In November of 1940, 58 years ago, a distinguished predecessor of mine, R.D.W. Connor, came to Montgomery for an important event in archival history. He spoke at the dedication of the new quarters of the Alabama Department of Archives and History in your World War Memorial Building. And he paid tribute, as I do, to the fact that your Department of Archives and History was the first archival agency established in the United States as an official organ of government. Your legislature created your archives in 1901. It took another 33 years for the Federal Government to get the idea. The Congress did not create the National Archives until 1934.

Your Department of Archives and History has remained a distinguished archival institution. And its director, my friend Ed Bridges, is one of the nation's archival leaders. He has performed many services nationally in the archival field, is admired as one of its more thoughtful leaders, and has been a help to me on more than one occasion. So, I commend you in Alabama for your archival leadership both early on and now. And I hope you will continue to help your Department of Archives and History maintain its prominence and its service to the state and the nation.

Though the National Archives and Records Administration is a Johnny-come-lately compared with your state archives, I can claim at least that it, too, is a treasure trove for the study of Alabama history. Our holdings include items relating to Alabama in all media--textual records, maps, photographs, other audiovisual materials, and even some electronic records.

These records are in our archival facilities in Washington but also in our Southeast Region's records services center in Atlanta. And many of our records relating to Alabama are available on microfilm. In fact, we are collaborating with the Local History and Genealogy Center at Wallace State Community College in Hanceville, Alabama, to publish on microfilm records of the Southern Claims Commission, which considered claims from citizens of former Confederate states for damages inflicted by Federal troops during the Civil War.

Some of the records in our holdings might be called "foundational" to the State of Alabama. Preserved in the National Archives are original treaties and laws that set boundaries and established the governments of the Mississippi Territory of which Alabama was part, the Alabama Territory itself, and the State of Alabama. But we also have a lot of Federal records that shed light on land ownership in Alabama, on the administration of justice, on agriculture and natural resources, on commerce and urban development, on education and child welfare, and on military organizations from the Civil War through the World Wars.

Ed, I've brought with me, and would like to give you, a nine-page list of examples of records in the National Archives relating to Alabama. They range all the way from treaties with the Creek Indians to action reports from the U.S.S. Alabama to aerospace records from the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. You see, it takes both our institutions to document the fascinating history of your state.

Now, up to this point, I have been kind of pretending to be an archivist, just like Ed. But if I'm going to say effectively what I really want to say to you tonight, I'd best start by admitting that I come to this business from the outside. I'm not a professionally trained and long experienced archivist. I started life as a dairy farmer in Kansas, got elected to the state legislature, became governor for two terms, and then taught public administration in a university. I became Archivist of the United States not as an archivist but as a public administrator. And I've come to regard it as the best job I ever had.

Why? There are several reasons.

First, there's so much more to today's National Archives and Records Administration than most people would ever imagine. Besides the grand old National Archives Building downtown in Washington, we operate a new, state-of-the-art Archives building in College Park, Maryland; eighteen federal records service centers across the country, such as the one I mentioned in Atlanta; and ten Presidential libraries from Hoover and Roosevelt to Reagan and Bush, with President Clinton's to come. Also, as Archivist of the United States I administer the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, which I mentioned; the Information Security Oversight Office, which monitors the classification and declassification of government records; and the Federal Register, which publishes Federal laws, rules, regulations, executive orders, public notices, and other current government information. All that's part of the National Archives and Records Administration. We call it NARA (N-A-R-A) for short, and I've learned that in Washington you should never be without a bureaucratic acronym.

The second thing that excites me about this job is what's in government records. In our archival facilities, we're preserving for public use in perpetuity nearly two million cubic feet of textual records--that's billions of individual records--not to mention millions of maps, charts, architectural and engineering plans, photographs, motion picture reels, and video and sound recordings. Our new College Park facility alone contains more than 500 miles of shelving, which end-to-end would stretch from Washington, D.C., well on its way to Mobile. And that doesn't count the millions of items in our Presidential libraries, where people not only use Presidential records and records donated by members of Presidential administrations, but where they also view exhibits of historical artifacts that document the nation's history during each Presidency.

Our archives contain an unending range of fascinating treasures: records of the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, Vietnam; the Emancipation Proclamation, Monroe Doctrine, Louisiana Purchase, Marshall Plan; and the famous Nixon Watergate tapes. Our records range from a federal warrant issued for the arrest of Wyatt Earp as a horse thief to the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination, and include, of course, all those records I described pertaining to Alabama.

But you don't need to just listen to me tell about our fascinating resources. You can explore them on your own. Make a note of the Web site address of the National Archives and Records Administration: www.archives.gov. When you get a chance, turn on a computer with an Internet connection at your home or wherever, and go to that address: www.archives.gov. There you will gain access to an astonishing trove of documentary treasure. You will find on-line images of more than 40,000 original documents and photographs, to which we'll be adding another 90,000 in the coming year. Items available already range from Mathew Brady's Civil War photographs to photos from the Kennedy White House. And in addition, through our Web site, you can electronically access the NARA Archival Information Locator-- "NAIL," as we fondly call it--where you can begin your hunt for whatever research material you need in our archives without leaving your computer.

But of course, as the National Archives and Records Administration, we are not just the National Archives. We also have legislative mandates to help the Federal Government manage all its records. And besides the 2 million cubic feet of records we keep in our archives, there are currently more than eighteen million cubic feet of records that we keep for Federal agencies in our records services centers--records that remain useful to them but no longer require being kept in their own offices.

And just who is using all this material? Today, visitors from across the country and the world were mounting the steps of the National Archives Building in Washington to see the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights--the Charters of Freedom--that we display there. Veterans were calling our Military Personnel Records Center in St. Louis for documentation of their entitlement to medical, educational, and employment benefits. Scholars were working in our Presidential libraries on books we and our children will read to understand significant parts of American history. Scholars, journalists, filmmakers, genealogists, lawyers, and many other people were doing all kinds of research at our archival facilities. On school computers, teachers were calling up documents that we have made electronically accessible for classroom use. And of course the government itself is a major NARA customer--in fact, by far the largest. We have records of the Congress and the Courts as well as records of the Presidents and the Executive Branch. And officials in nearly every government agency were contacting our Federal records services centers from Atlanta to Anchorage to retrieve records needed to respond to legal or financial requirements, to meet citizens' FOIA requests, and to do all kinds of other government business.

But it is not just the quantity of records and facilities, not just the action and excitement of the inventory, that makes being Archivist so attractive. It is the third reason and one I share with you now that really sets this job apart.

As Ed knows, it is easy in the archival and records management business to get bogged down in the daily nitty-gritty so much from time to time that we lose sight of why it matters. But effective records management does matter for more than the usual reasons. We tend to talk about the need for good records management and archival administration in terms of economy and efficiency. When records get lost, time gets wasted. When records can't be retrieved, those who need them can't be helped. Inefficient recordkeeping produces inefficient government. And lost records are also lost history. But there's even more to it. We have to overcome the challenges we face because democracy needs it. Open government, accountable to the people, requires open records, accessible to the people, now, and in the years to come. Let me explain more of what I mean.

Not long ago the United States Government was on the verge of resuming military action against the government of Iraq. The Gulf War originally began, you recall, when Iraq made an attempt to take over the nation of Kuwait. But it was more than the borders of Kuwait that Iraq intended to erase. It was also the separate identity of Kuwait's people. One of the United Nations resolutions that led to the Gulf War was a condemnation of attempts by Iraq "to destroy the civil records maintained by the legitimate government of Kuwait."

Why? Because such records document the legitimacy of a government. And such records document whatever legal standing, rights, and entitlements the citizens of a country have. However democratic or undemocratic Kuwait itself may have been, Saddam Hussein certainly understood that getting rid of records, or otherwise denying access to them, makes it a lot easier to end a nation's independence and subjugate its citizens. The Serbs in the Bosnian War understood that, too, when they shelled the National Library in Sarajevo along with other cultural institutions. And when the founding fathers and mothers of our own country revolted against the King of Great Britain, the charges they made against him in the Declaration of Independence included this: "He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public records . . . ."

Recently, some children who visited our Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library reported having, "fun" by "using a special computer that allowed us to make Presidential decisions." One parent thanked our staff there for a tour given to her child--"a future President"! Now, in dictatorships, this does not happen. Children did not write to Stalin and Hitler about being inspired to take over as heads of government or learning how. Under authoritarian regimes, government records tend not to support rights, entitlements, public insight, and political understanding. Instead government files support surveillance, suspicion, political suppression, and persecution. Records there have a different kind of meaning in people's lives than they do in a democratic society.

Not the least of the importance of records in a democracy is their indispensability for justice. The government and the public both need records to defend themselves in courts that don't deny access to evidence but allow people to present evidence so that justice can prevail. But let me take a particularly dramatic example. You've all seen or heard reports in the press about efforts to trace "Nazi Gold," looted from victims of the Holocaust. Much research already has been undertaken in the National Archives. Last year the Department of State issued a Preliminary Study of U.S. and Allied Efforts to Recover and Restore Gold and Other Assets Stolen or Hidden by Germany During World War II. In his foreword to the Preliminary Study, State Department Undersecretary Stuart E. Eisenstat described that work as follows:

All involved have worked tirelessly in beginning the process of reviewing 15 million pages of documentation in the National Archives. This represents the largest such effort ever undertaken using the Archives' records, and it has required the declassification and transfer of more documents at one time--between 800,000 and one million pages--than ever before in the history of that repository.
This was possible only because the records were created by agencies and preserved by NARA and are now being made accessible. And it is helping the world do justice to thousands of people whom the Nazis robbed.

The question now is, can we keep providing these vital services?

I would be remiss to come here and sing the praises of the National Archives and Records Administration without telling you of the enormous challenges we face. Let me just summarize some big ones. The sheer volume of records with which we must cope has mushroomed in just the past decade. NARA's holdings have been increasing by more than one-half million cubic feet of records per year, and we've about run out of records center space just to house them adequately. Many of the records we already hold need special preservation treatment to stop deterioration caused by acidic paper, acetate-based film, and other hazards, problems familiar to many in this audience. On top of that, government computers are now producing enormous volumes of electronic mail, word-processing documents, and automated databases. Over the past quarter century, from 1972 to 1998, NARA has taken into our archives approximately 90,000 files of electronic records from the Federal Government as a whole. We estimate right now that the Treasury Department alone is generating annually, in e-mail only, 960,000 files of electronic records that we are likely to need to archive. That's more than ten times as much just from one agency, in one year, as we've received in a quarter-century from the entire government.

But we are trying to cope not only with the volume but with the special problems that these records pose. As those of you with computers know, electronic material is easily deleted. Computer tapes and disks quickly deteriorate. And the hardware and software systems on which they can be read become rapidly obsolete. How many of you have had your computer system "crash"? How many of you can read on your present computer diskettes what you copied off of your first one?

What worries me is this: the Federal Government, along with everybody else in the age of digitized information, is losing unknown amounts of potentially valuable records. NARA has preserved paper dispatches that generals sent and received in the course of conducting the Civil War more than a hundred years ago, but a hundred years from now will electronic records remain accessible on which to study command decisions in the Gulf War? Or, just to take the current daily headlines, how much of the record material accumulating in the computers of the various independent prosecutors will survive deletion, deterioration, and the discarding of machinery that can read it? Neglected paper records could sit around in boxes for many years until archivists finally did something to save them, but neglected electronic records simply disappear.

Maybe you have seen, on public television, a new documentary entitled "Into the Future," which explains why all this digital information we are generating may not survive. At a conference last month at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, participants warned that modern society, and I quote, "is courting disaster." For as one participant said, "Historians will look back on this era and see a period of very little information. A digital gap will span from the beginning of the wide-spread use of the computer until the time we eventually solve this problem." Let me tell you, there's no question about such a gap. The only question is, how big will it get--how much history will we lose--before we learn how to preserve and provide perpetual access to vast quantities of electronic information?

The fact is inescapable that the Federal Government and every agency within it, including NARA, must address realistically a future in which government recordkeeping will be increasingly electronic. The question is--how are we going to do it?

To begin with, we at NARA speak to the issue in a Strategic Plan, which you can access on our Web site. It contains no magic, but neither does it back away from our mission, which we've summed up as this: to provide ready access to essential evidence that documents the rights of citizens, the actions of federal officials, and the national experience. This plan recognizes that more and more records are going to be electronic. Accordingly, our plan pledges NARA "to work in active partnership with Federal officials to assure ourselves that essential evidence is created, identified, maintained, and appropriately scheduled for as long as needed"; to "work with agencies to make our current scheduling and appraisal processes more effective and timely"; and "to ensure that electronic as well as paper records are created and preserved for access as long as needed."

Well, the plan is one thing--but what are we doing? I want to tell you some of the things we've already got going. In answer, I want to go back to the last question I was asked at our appropriation subcommittee hearing in late March. We had given the subcommittee a chart illustrating the enormous volume of electronic files we expected agencies to turn over to us in the very near future. Congressman Hoyer of Maryland, going back to that chart, asked me, "Does the government have enough resources to solve this problem?" I replied, yes--if we wisely invest, we can make technology work for us. Technology got us into this difficulty, and technology must get us out.

One of the many challenges is that currently available software makes it too hard now to maintain good recordkeeping practices for electronic records. Therefore we need to harness the power of information technology to help us do the recordkeeping job more successfully. Several years ago, with assistance from NARA and others, the Department of Defense began to develop standards for electronic recordkeeping. Now we need to work with other agencies to determine whether the DoD standards can be applied government-wide. And NARA has entered into an agreement with the Defense Department to do just that.

I've committed NARA to developing practical approaches to the management and disposition of electronic records through other partnerships as well. Last fall, I asked government records professionals experienced with automated records to join with specialists from NARA to form an Electronic Records Work Group. I asked the group "to review issues relating to the creation, maintenance, and disposition of certain types of electronic information." The Work Group already is making progress to accomplish the desired overall result--to preserve records appropriately with retention and disposition schedules that Federal agencies can and will use.

For all of this work--for solving electronic records problems, for helping the government manage records better, for coping with the growing quantities of records, for preserving records that are now at risk, and for improving public access to federal records--I'm pleased to report that additional financial support may be coming. We have succeeded in making our case to the Administration, and President Clinton has proposed to the Congress a budget for fiscal year 1999 that would provide an increase of nearly $25 million for operating expenses of the National Archives and Records Administration. I hope that you who care about history are as grateful as I am for this encouragement. If the Congress will approve the increase, NARA will be able to take more steps called for in our Strategic Plan to meet the many challenges we face in records management, especially electronic, and in keeping the nation's documentary heritage safe and accessible in the new millennium. You may be assured that I am now doing everything I can to make our case in the Congress.

Let me close by going back to the bottom line of that case, to the big picture, to the reason it is so important that we do these things, that we solve our problems, that we manage records effectively to meet government's own needs and provide public access. The greatest revelation for me as Archivist of the United States has come in the realization that every time we help the White House, the Congress, the courts, and the agencies of our government keep better records; every time we provide ready access to records that are useful and beneficial to people; every time we come up with records that help people document their identities and verify their entitlements to rights and benefits as citizens, we are contributing to the health of democracy itself. Every time our records enable people to analyze the actions of their government and hold their officials responsible; every time we help people figure out what really happened in our history and assess the meaning of it--I repeat, every time we do those things, we are contributing to the health of democracy itself. And at a time when voter turnout indicates voter apathy, and polls are showing that Americans' faith in their institutions is low, it is more important than ever that Americans be able to count on those of us who, as archivists and records managers, are supposed to be protecting records that document rights and entitlements, actions of the government, and what is significant in American history. The fact is that records do matter enormously in the life of our democratic nation.

NARA's part of the responsibility for recordkeeping is so important that the Congress made the National Archives and Records Administration, which used to be part of another organization, an independent agency, and took steps to insulate the Archivist of the United States from political pressure. The public must be able to trust NARA for independent judgment and objective action to make essential evidence readily accessible. And there's really no option to investing in enabling us to meet records challenges and provide that service. As I said recently in testimony before an appropriations subcommittee of the Congress, "being overwhelmed is not a choice when the record of our country is at stake."

With that in mind, let me conclude with two quotations that I think sum up what I am trying to say about the importance of records in maintaining a healthy democracy and public faith in its institutions. Every time I go into the rotunda of our National Archives building in downtown Washington and see hundreds of people lined up for a look at the American Charters of Freedom, I feel the significance of what we do. But I felt it every bit as strongly when I received an electronic message recently from a user of our electronic database, the National Archives Information Locator, "NAIL," which I previously described as being an increasingly used way to find out what is in our record holdings. The users said, in a reply message that we received, "Thanks for allowing us to access this most important database. This assures me that we are a government 'of the people, by the people'."

The other quotation comes from that predecessor of mine, R.D.W. Connor, in the speech that he gave in Alabama more than a half century ago. Talking of the founder of your Department of Archives and History, Dr. Connor said:

As a lawyer and as a scholar, Dr. Owen knew the potential value to both the state and its citizens of official correspondence, orders, reports, account books, land grants, judicial proceedings, legislative journals, laws, and other public records, however old they might be. As a lawyer, he knew that government officials are dependent upon such records for the orderly conduct of public business and the protection of public interests; that the citizen finds in them the evidence of his rights and liberties--his right to vote, his right to the land on which he lives, his right to carry on business, his right to inherit and devise property, his right to freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and freedom of worship, [and] As a scholar, Dr. Owen knew that such records are the chief sources of the history of the state and its people . . . ."

What Dr. Connor said in your state those many years ago remains true. And it remains important for Archivists of the United States to continue to say it. Thank you for the honor you have given me to follow in his steps to your state and to reiterate that message that the founder of your archives understood so well--that effective recordkeeping is essential for the history of our people and the health of their democracy.

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