About the National Archives

Charting Our Future: Challenges and Issues that Confront Us in the 21st Century


John W. Carlin
Archivist of the United States


Address to the North Carolina Statewide Conference on Records, November 2, 2001


Thank you Dr. (Jeffrey) Crow.

North Carolina has a distinguished tradition in the archival and records field. Robert D. W. Connor, left a distinguished career at the University of North Carolina in 1934 to come to Washington to be the First Archivist of the United States and the head of a new federal agency called The National Archives.

And today, all of you play an important role in the lives of the citizens of North Carolina. By managing and caring for the records and library resources of your state, you not only ensure enduring links to the history of North Carolina, you also ensure that the people of this state have access to records that document their rights and entitlements, and also the actions of state and local government.

At NARA, our mission is similar in nature to yours, but a bit broader in scale. For our focus is on the records of all three branches of the Federal Government. And through the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, or NHPRC, our grantmaking arm, we assist organizations such as yours in documenting and preserving the national experience at the state and local level.

Currently, we are responsible for preserving and providing public access to nearly five billion paper records, as well as more than forty million special media items such as photos, films, sound recordings, maps and charts, and even presidential gifts. We do this through thirty-three facilities located throughout the country, including regional archives and Presidential Libraries. And of course we have the ongoing challenge of dealing with the proliferation of electronic records that are multiplying by the millions.

The National Archives and Records Administration preserves these records not just for the sake of history, but also so that the records of our Government can be examined by its citizens. We enable people to inspect for themselves the records of what government has done. We enable officials and agencies to review their actions, and we help citizens hold them accountable for those actions. And as well we hold records that document the rights of private citizens. Materials such as military records, or land rights, for example, enable citizens to claim their rightful entitlements.

This accountability of the Government to its people and the protection of their rights is the very cornerstone of the democracy in which we live, and I am proud to play a role in safeguarding the records of this democracy, as I know you are.

The challenges that we face are also common to all of us. New technologies have created and will continue to create both possibilities and problems for our profession. Electronic records are being created in large and growing quantities, and the fact is we lack adequate methods for managing, preserving, and providing access to them.

Meanwhile, paper records continue to proliferate and the costs of storing them continue to grow. Simultaneously, more people want more services, including the broader and quicker access that new technologies now make possible. And finally, we all face the challenge of getting people whose support we need to understand what we do and why we do it.

At NARA, we realize that our mission to ensure ready access to essential Federal records is too large and too important for us to undertake alone. So, in our ten-year Strategic Plan, we've adopted a strategy to leverage the expertise and resources of other individuals and organizations with similar challenges.

We also recognize that our national experience is captured in records that are as diverse as our citizens. That's why, we must work in partnership with states and local communities to achieve our mission. We also look outside our own profession to other professional disciplines for help. And we recognize that we need to better communicate and explain what we need and why to those who can help us.

Now before I get too far into records issues, I feel I must say a few words about issues that have recently arisen as a result of the tragic events of September 11, and its aftermath. Just as citizens of this country and our allies around the world have come together in response to these horrific attacks, I have seen the archival community band together to address records issues that have now become high priorities for all of us.

The events of Sept. 11 have reinforced the need for all of us who keep records to plan for disasters that we hope and pray we will never see. At NARA, we are doing everything in our power to assist agencies whose records were destroyed. In New York City and at the Pentagon, NARA staff has offered its assistance to assess the extent of records damage, stabilize damaged records, and reconstruct files if possible. We have also scheduled a number of training workshops on vital records and disaster preparedness to be presented at Federal records centers.

More specifically, our New York Regional Archives is collaborating with other members of New York City's archival community to provide assistance during this period of recovery and rebuilding. Working together, this group is addressing both the immediate need for disaster assessment and recovery, and the longer-term initiative to document the people, organizations, and activities surrounding the World Trade Center attack. And these efforts have only just begun and are expected to change and grow in the upcoming months.

We are also working with representatives of the Society of American Archivists on the, National Task Force on Emergency Response. Through this group, we will be able to share information and assistance on the recovery of records and cultural materials.

The sad truth is that many of the organizations affected by the attack on the World Trade Center not only lost staff, but also lost countless irreplaceable documents. For example, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has confirmed that the entire contents of the library stored in the sub-basement of the World Trade Center were destroyed.

On a more optimistic note, organizations that had copies of their vital records stored off-site fared better and in some cases have been able to start rebuilding. Obviously this should serve as a necessary reminder to all of us to plan for the safety of the vital records of our organization, but in times of tight budgets and strained resources, it has often been difficult to convince leadership that vital records planning and management must be a priority in any organization. But, if ever there was a time to drive our point home, it is now.

Just as recent events have made us all more vigilant in regard to personal security, we have also become more aware of the safeguards that are necessary to protect vital records. And while the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are "worst-case" scenarios, fire, floods, and other natural disasters are unfortunately all too common, and not prepared for often enough.

Additionally, in this time of increased national security, it's important to keep in mind that the records of any group of people, whether it be a nation, a government agency, or a private business are key to its survival and success and have historically been targets of aggression.

For example, you may recall that the Gulf War originally began when Iraq made an attempt to take over the nation of Kuwait. But it was more than the borders of the Kuwait that Iraq intended to erase -- it was also the 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 quote " destroy the civil records maintained by the legitimate government of Kuwait."

Simply put, Saddam Hussein understood that such records document the legitimacy of a government and whatever legal standing, rights, and entitlements the citizens of a country have. Destroying the national records of Kuwait would make it much easier to end that nation's independence and subjugate its citizens. The Serbians in the Bosnian War seem to have understood this too when they shelled the National Library in Sarajevo along with other cultural institutions.

Of course, because we deal with records every day, we understand their importance both historically and strategically, but many times others don't until tragedy deals us all a wake-up call.

Clearly, we are all concerned with preserving and protecting the records of our country. And sometimes, as we have recently witnessed, this means advocating and carrying out records disaster planning. Other times it means looking into the future to address preservation needs of new kinds of records. And preserving the records of the future is probably the greatest strategic challenge facing all of us.

The explosion of electronic records is forever changing the way we, in the records management and archival fields, do our jobs. And we cannot succeed if we do not find partners to help us solve problems, define new approaches, and help finance the technological solutions we need.

Obviously, if we are going to preserve electronic records and ensure they are retrievable and usable years into the future, new technological solutions must be developed.

Although the National Archives and Records Administration has electronic records challenges that are unique in their sheer size, complexity, and need for longevity, we don't have the resources, or frankly the clout to drive technology to satisfy our needs. The Defense Department or NASA may be able to do this, but not NARA.

So we've adopted a strategy to leverage the expertise and resources of other individuals and organizations with similar problems. We looked outside our own profession to other professional disciplines for help. And we recognized that we needed to better explain what we need and why to those who can help us. As a result, we are now working with partners to create a digital National Archives that will make government records available to anyone, at any time, and in any place, for as long as needed.

Thanks to the partnerships we have built with the San Diego Supercomputer Center, as well as the Georgia Tech Research Institute and other government agencies including the National Science Foundation, the Defense Department, and the Patent and Trademark Office and thanks to the support we have received from the Clinton and Bush Administrations and Congress, we now have hope that we can actually develop an Electronic Records Archives, or ERA.

At NARA, we are working with our partners to build an archives that can preserve any kind of electronic record indefinitely, free from dependence on any specific hardware and software, and enable individuals to retrieve the electronic records they need on computer systems now in use and those developed in the future.

And we have come a long way in just a few short years. In 1998, we asked the experts at the San Diego Supercomputer Center with whom we have formed a partnership, to help us develop the ability to process millions of records as quickly as possible. At the time, they succeeded in bringing in a million e-mail messages from the Internet, processing them into a preservable format, and bringing them back in a different format. This all took less than two days on a supercomputer two years ago. Now they can do 10 million records in a day and are exploring the feasibility of processing 100 million records a day.

And, we expect that in the near future we will have the technology to process a million messages a day from a single workstation. This means that this technology promises to be useful to many kinds of archives, libraries, government agencies, and businesses, regardless of size.

In fact, as you may know, the NHPRC has funded a project at the Supercomputer Center so that the technology we are developing can be adapted for use in state capitols and city halls, as well as in small archives and libraries, colleges and universities -- wherever citizens need or want records or information.

So, while none of you has anything approaching the volume of electronic records that NARA must deal with - at least I hope you don't - you also can and should benefit from the research we are doing with our partners.

As well we are seeing more and more state governments, non-profit institutions and universities turn to the NHPRC to help find solutions to the challenges of managing electronic records that are common to us all.

For example, the Michigan Department of Management and Budget and the Michigan State Archives are testing the feasibility of using a Defense Department Records Management Application to classify, store, and manage electronic records in state offices. And another project is an effort by the Rhode Island State Archives to build an electronic records program development model for small state archival programs.

But, having said that, I will also tell you that NARA is in the same boat as you are in regard to convincing decision makers that resources for electronic records management and archives must be a priority. I've told Congress that in terms of complexity and scope for NARA, building and implementing the Electronic Records Archives is equivalent to NASA putting a man on the moon. The simple fact is we can't do this alone, but thanks to our partners we are making headway. And just as our partners help us, we are committed to sharing solutions with our partners at the state and local level.

Three years ago the technology and resources to build ERA simply did not exist. Now, while we have made good progress, there is still much work to do. Full deployment of NARA's Electronic Records Archives will be progressive and dependent on the availability of technology and of resources. For the research we are working with now uses technology that is not yet in the marketplace. And the technology and solutions are not going to be cheap.

But building this new, digital National Archives is not an option. For we have no alternative if citizens are going to continue to have long-term access to the records of their government.

Now while there is no doubt that we must focus on building the electronic infrastructure to protect the digital records of the present and the future, it is just as important that we continue our efforts to preserve and make accessible all formats of records of the past. All over the country, far too many records - both private and public - now lie in varying stages of decay, disorganization, and inaccessibility. And as we all know too well, paper records in particular are subject to destruction by fire, water, mold and insect damage and even by the neglect of untrained caretakers.

And the truth is, if we lose our records, we lose our history. We lose rights of ownership, and links to the past. We lose the stories of those who came before us.

But resources for records are stretched. Staff and volunteers need training, and time, money and adequate storage space are limited everywhere. In Kansas - my home state -- for example, the majority of institutions charged with preserving our heritage have less than one thousand dollars per year to devote to historical records, according to their State Historical Records Advisory Board.

Needless to say, these issues concern me, just as I know they do you. But I am pleased to tell you that through NHPRC grants, Federal funds have benefited every state, reaching a large number of organizations responsible for historical records.

As many of you know, through the NHPRC, NARA promotes broad public participation in historical documentation by collaborating with the SHRABs to plan and carry out jointly funded programs designed to strengthen the nation's archival infrastructure and expand the range of records that are protected and accessible. For those of you not familiar with the NHPRC, this commission, that I chair, brings together representatives of major national historical and archival professional organizations, along with representatives of all three branches of the Federal Government, and the Library of Congress to focus on archival and records issues.

NHPRC records projects fall into four main areas. ONE, we fund research and development projects focused on appraising, preserving, disseminating, and providing access to important non-Federal records in electronic form. The grant with the San Diego Supercomputer Center falls into this category, for example. TWO, we collaborate with SHRABs to plan and carry out jointly funded programs to strengthen our nation's archival infrastructure and expand the range of records that are protected and accessible. THREE, we provide support to projects designed to protect and increase access to historically significant non-Federal records. And FOUR, we support projects that aim to improve the methods, tools, and training of professionals engaged in archival work.

I want to stress here that NHPRC grants are not just a one-way mechanism used to disperse Federal dollars. The results of the projects we fund benefit more than just the organizations spearheading the project. For, research and development projects - especially those dealing with new technologies - yield solutions that we all can potentially benefit from. Projects that preserve and provide access to historical records give us all the chance to study and learn from the past. And, projects focused on professional training and education enhance our effectiveness as a professional community.

The NHPRC continues to help ensure the survival and accessibility of historical documents, by giving grants to state and local institutions to fund the preservation, arrangement and description of historical records and for professional archival training and development. And by combining these NHPRC funds with state funds, as many of you know, organizations are leveraging limited resources to get more bang for their buck.

As an example, a recently completed regrant project in South Carolina illustrates this very well. According to the South Carolina SHRAB's final report, the project resulted in the arrangement and description of nearly twelve thousand cubic feet of records, the microfilming of more than 170 cubic feet of records, and the preservation of more than one hundred thousand photographs and negatives. And in many cases, the preservation work done rescued and stabilized records that were at risk.

Here in North Carolina, the most recent SHRAB regrant also provided support for basic preservation activities. The North Carolina Preservation Consortium received a grant for preservation surveys at individual institutions, and a grant went to the North Carolina Society of Surveyors to fund the collecting and microfilming of surveyor's plats. The University of North Carolina in Asheville received a grant for preservation of nitrate negatives in its Ball Photographic collection, and preservation work at numerous local governments was also funded.

And, if you like, you can find more information about the NHPRC or other NARA initiatives on our web site at www.archives.gov.

The bottom line here is while resources are tight, it is vital that all of us continue to focus on preservation and access issues. For all those boxes of unprocessed records stashed in basements throughout the country contain the history of our people, our communities and our nation... and this documentation and history is too valuable to lose.

However, I am pleased to report that we have made some real progress in recent years in communicating to the decision makers what we do at NARA and the NHPRC and the importance of our mission to the American people. We are very appreciative of the increased support of Congress and the Administration for the past several years, but we have learned that success with our budget is a result of convincing those that control the purse strings that our work is well worth the investment of tax payer dollars.

I can not stress enough the importance of good, strategic communication with decision makers at every level. That is why I spend countless hours with the White House and in Congress explaining value of strong recordkeeping and archival programs and the need to support what NARA is trying to achieve. For it is absolutely necessary to tell the people who can help you what you want to do, why you want to do it, and what the intended outcome will be.

Through communication and the solicitation of input, you can make people a part of the change process and give them a personal stake in the outcome. But communication is hard work. It requires defining your message and staying on message, and we can't just talk to ourselves.

I can tell you from experience that when we can explain to others what we do as archivists and why, people are eager to help.

Now to wrap this up, I want to re-iterate that now more than ever records and the people who care for them play a vital role in our society. September 11 was a sad reminder to all of us to plan for the safety of our vital records. Now is the time to get this message out within your organizations, and to be an advocate for records disaster planning.

Second, whatever the details of your mission are, it is important to form partnerships with others who share your concerns and challenges. For example, I can see first-hand the progress we have made working with partners on electronics records issues, and this progress will benefit all of us.

And finally, to maximize our reach, we must leverage available Federal resources with state, local and private funds. In times of tight budgets, a little creativity can go a long way. And a little communication can go a long way too. Telling people what you do, why you do it, and why it is important can help get you the support of decision makers.

I do hope that the examples and illustrations I have discussed here this morning have given you a better idea of how the National Archives and Records Administration, and the NHPRC, are working with state and local archives, libraries, universities, and other organizations to further our shared goals and find solutions to our shared challenges.

As a professional community we know and understand that records matter in people's lives, and records matter in the life of a nation. They document the identities, rights, and entitlements of citizens, and the actions for which officials are accountable. And they document historical experience and memory, so that it can be assessed and reassessed as historians continuously seek better understanding of what has happened within the context of our communities, our nation, and our world.

In this country, records define all the work of our government, document all of our identities, establish all of our entitlements, and enable us to hold accountable all those to whom we entrust Federal, State and local offices. Collectively we have a huge responsibility, and we face more challenges than ever in meeting it.

In closing, I'd like to share with you an experience I had a couple of weeks ago. On October 5th, in New York City, we launched a three-year traveling road show of one of our most popular exhibits. The name of the exhibit is "American Originals," and it brings together original documents that have helped chart the course of American history including the Emancipation Proclamation, the voting records of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, the Louisiana Purchase treaty, and President John F. Kennedy's handwritten draft of his inaugural address.

For many months we had planned for the first stop on the "American Originals" tour to be the New York Public Library, but in the wake of the September 11 tragedies we considered postponing the kickoff of the tour. But, at the urging of our partners in New York City, we decided to go ahead with it. And I'm glad we did, because it is at times like these that we all need to be reminded of our shared history as Americans. The documents in that exhibit, like all the records we preserve and protect, testify to the spirit of our nation, and its ability to endure through hardship and tragedy as well as in prosperity. It is my hope that the people of New York who come to see "American Originals" will take with them this inherent message of unity. And just as we now stand united as a nation, I hope that all of us in this room are united in our efforts to serve the citizens of this country.

The records and history of our nation have been entrusted to our care, and the work we do now will ensure the documentation of our past will be preserved and protected for our grandchildren and their grandchildren in the future. I commend all of you for the fine work you are doing, and I wish you all a very productive conference.

Thank you!

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