About the National Archives

NARA: A Look to the Future

Remarks by Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States
to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference
April 21, 2006, Baltimore, MD


I want to thank my hosts for inviting me to speak today at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference. I see a number of my NARA colleagues in the audience this morning, and I am pleased to join you to speak briefly on the subject of "NARA: A Look to the Future."

While preparing this talk, the image of an influential book from the American past—Edward Bellamy's utopian novel, Looking Backward, kept intruding into my thoughts. Bellamy, you may recall, set his novel in a supposedly transformed and virtually problem-free Boston of the 21st century, by which time the many dilemmas of urban industrial society—encapsulated in his portrait of Boston in the late 19th century—had all been confronted and resolved.

We at the National Archives and Records Administration in the early 21st century can have no such illusions, utopian or otherwise, about easy solutions and utopian fixes to our agency's current concerns—the resolution of which will require patience, focus, creativity, teamwork, significantly greater funding, and, yes, a bit of good luck. Nevertheless, I ask that you join me in suspending disbelief while briefly touring NARA in the year 2009, three years into the future when NARA celebrates its 75th anniversary and its quarter-century of independence, both useful markers as we review the state of the agency.

Before we start this brief trip into the near future, however, a few words about NARA's new vision, mission, and strategic goals statements, all presently nearing completion but which I will now share with you—the controlling ambitions that guide our efforts. "In dreams begin responsibilities," the poet Delmore Schwarz wrote, and here are ours:

First, our vision:

As the nation's record keeper, it is our vision that every American will understand the vital role records play in a democracy, and their own personal stake in the National Archives. Our holdings and diverse programs will be available to more people than ever before through modern technology and dynamic partnerships. The stories of our nation and our people are told in the records and artifacts cared for in NARA facilities around the country. We want every American to be inspired to explore the records of their country.

Then, NARA's mission:

The National Archives and Records Administration serves American democracy by safeguarding and preserving the records of our government, ensuring that the people can discover, use, and learn from this documentary heritage. We ensure continuing access to the essential documentation of the rights of American citizens and the actions of their government. We support democracy, promote civic education, and facilitate historical understanding of our national experience.

Finally, six strategic goals:

One: As the nation's record keeper, we will ensure the continuity and effective operations of Federal programs by expanding our leadership and services in managing the government's records.

Two: We will preserve and process records for opening to the public as soon as legally possible.

Three: We will solve the challenges of electronic records in the government.

Four: We will provide prompt, easy, and secure access to our holdings anywhere, anytime.

Five: We will increase civic literacy in America through our museum, public outreach, and education programs.

Six: We will equip NARA to meet the changing needs of our customers.

By 2009, we envision NARA's lead role in managing Federal and Presidential records widely acknowledged and implemented through constructive partnerships with other segments of the archival community;

By 2009, we envision NARA's reputation for preserving and making accessible to the public on the timeliest basis the greatest number of records possible—a record we have occasionally placed in jeopardy in past years—thoroughly confirmed, and the current classification system deprived of possible abuse through development of a national declassification system and other reforms;

By 2009, we envision successful implementation of increment one of NARA's Electronic Records Archives now being developed, alongside a greatly expanded effort to reduce substantially the backlog of unprocessed paper and electronic records;

By 2009, we envision a greatly expanded NARA presence online and significant expansion of our digitization efforts, all with a focused goal of assuring prompter and easier access to our holdings anywhere and everywhere—in short, an archives without walls;

By 2009, we envision the National Archives playing a major role in strengthening civic literacy using our documentary heritage throughout our entire body of facilities nationwide;

And, finally, by 2009, we envision even more greatly improved customer services and assistance to our stakeholders and employees wherever found.

These are crucial yardsticks for NARA's performance, made more so in this time of decreasing public funding for NARA's entire budget. In fact, we expect the years through 2009 and beyond to be a period of tight domestic spending throughout the Federal Government. Nonetheless, what the National Archives is able to do in the areas I've mentioned will no doubt affect regional public archives and private institutions in some way. I want to describe briefly what is being done to meet these goals.

In recent years, NARA has expanded its role in managing the records of the Federal Government, both paper and electronic. It issues guidance to help departments and agencies establish better records management practices and provides on-site help. Last year, we established a Federal Records Council. It is a 27-member interagency committee that works with NARA to identify strategies, best practices, and solutions to electronic records and records management issues.

Our 17 Federal Records Centers have now had five profitable years operating like a business within the Federal Government, providing storage and ready access to records for departments and agencies. Over the past year, NARA also opened a new Southeast regional archives facility in Atlanta and new records centers for the Southeast and Pacific regions. A new home for the Southwest records center is in the works.

However, we still face some problems in records management. While NARA's holdings of traditional records have nearly doubled in the last 10 years, the resources to accession, process, and preserve them have hardly changed. We have barely been able to register receipt of new holdings and shelve them. In this connection, the National Archives' role as the nation's record keeper will expand later this year with the addition of the now-private Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, CA, to our system of Presidential libraries, once Congress accepts it as a Federal facility.

Earlier this month, I designated Timothy Naftali as first director of the Federally operated Nixon Library. He is an associate professor at the Miller Center of Public Affairs of the University of Virginia and director of its Presidential Recordings Center. Once open, this library will be staffed by NARA personnel employed by the Federal Government in accordance with Federal personnel recruitment, hiring, and research procedures.

Several years ago, Congress lifted its prohibition against moving the official Presidential papers of Richard Nixon out of the Washington, DC, area. Over the next few years, all of the Nixon materials now housed in College Park will be transferred to Yorba Linda.

Although one of NARA's missions is to make available to the public as soon as possible the records that document the Federal Government's actions, there are exceptions for records pertaining to national security. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, have increased concern about premature release of records that could compromise our nation's security. Even earlier, beginning in 1999, a number of records have been removed from the open shelves at NARA by their originating agency for possible "reclassification."

After I first learned of this procedure last month, I instituted a 60-day moratorium on further withdrawals and ordered an audit to find out what documents had been removed, who authorized the removals, and whether the removal was appropriate.

We now await the results of the audit to be released on April 26. NARA will review the entire matter with an eye toward balancing national security with the most open access to records that can be provided.

I intend to pursue vigorously and communicate openly the National Archives' major goals regarding all documents entrusted to our stewardship. These goals are the physical protection of the records themselves and the maximum feasible public access to the overwhelming majority of records, with appropriate protection for legitimately classified national security information.

As I stated last week, we will strive to achieve these goals in a thoroughly transparent manner. There can never be a classified aspect to our mission. Classified agreements are the antithesis of our reason for being. Agencies have the prerogative to classify their requests to NARA if disclosure of the reasons they are asking us to take action would cause genuine identifiable damage to national security. What NARA does in response to such requests, and how we do it, however, will always be as transparent as possible.

If any records are removed in future for defensible reasons of national security, the American people will always, at the very least, know when that occurs and how many records are affected.

In the years just ahead, the greatest challenge at NARA is presented by the rapidly growing number of electronic records being created by the Federal Government—and at a phenomenal pace. These records include text documents, e-mails, web pages, digital images, videotapes, maps, spreadsheets, presentations, databases, satellite images, geographic information systems—and more types of records to be created in the future.

Unlike parchment or paper, electronic records can become inaccessible quite easily—as time passes and technology advances. The hardware and software used today to create these records can become obsolete very quickly, within years or months. This leaves countless important records at risk of being lost forever, but the good news is that the technology for preserving electronic records is finally catching up with the technology for creating them.

NARA's Electronic Records Archives, or ERA, will begin to come on line next year. The mission of ERA is clear and simple: it will authenticate, preserve, and make accessible—far into the future—the important electronic records of the Federal Government, regardless of the type of hardware or software used to create them or the kind available in the future.

You probably know that last fall NARA awarded a contract to Lockheed Martin Corporation to build the ERA, and recently Lockheed's preliminary design for ERA's infrastructure was accepted. The company will soon present its preliminary design for the first increment, which is to be operational by 2009.

ERA is for everyone, because electronic records are being created just as rapidly outside the Federal realm as they are inside. State and local governments, colleges and universities, small businesses and large corporations, public utilities, hospitals and health-care facilities, insurance companies, financial institutions, and courts and law enforcement authorities all create documents that you and I may need some day or that will somehow affect our lives.

For these records, and those who create them, ERA will be important. Just as World War II and the nation's space program produced great technological leaps forward, so too will ERA. The results of those breakthroughs for ERA will be shared. They will be scalable and adaptable for the entire archival community and for other institutions, public and private, that create, preserve, and make accessible electronic records.

And ERA will be built to allow it to respond to advances in information technology. ERA will accept new types of electronic records, and Federal departments and agencies can use the latest technologies in their daily recordkeeping, knowing that those records can be easily accepted by ERA.

If ERA represents a key challenge to NARA, civic literary runs a close second. Early in my tenure someone asked me if "education" really belonged among the core activities of the National Archives. Wasn't it a potential distraction from our core mission to preserve and provide access to records? I was emphatic in my response. Without an essential level of civic literacy in the general population, all of the outstanding scholarly and journalistic achievements we enable would be of little use to a population that has lost touch with its history. With that in mind, we have embedded the role of "civic educator" into our new Strategic Plan.

Education activities, of course, were already robust at the Archives when I arrived—from programs in the regional archives and presidential libraries to those activities based in Washington, DC.

Now, those programs have a flagship in our new Learning Center, whose first phase opens next week at the National Archives Building on Pennsylvania Avenue in the Nation's Capital. The Learning Center will enhance and strengthen our efforts to reach into the nation's classrooms to help students and teachers study their nation's history in a more exciting and engaging way through the use of primary documents. Through it, we will continue National Archives' programs of educating teachers how to use primary documents in the classroom and to ignite more interest among students and teachers in the study of history, civics, and social studies.

Our civic education efforts, however, are not limited to American students and teachers. With our new "Distinguished Foreign Visitors Program," we are able to demonstrate the value of archives and open records in all nations and, in particular, in starting and nurturing a democratic form of government. To that end, we have hosted special visits and tours for foreign dignitaries, such as visiting prime ministers and ambassadors posted to Washington.

As the National Archives looks ahead to the coming years, we must also consider how to better serve customers, and one way is through our web site, Archives.gov. The web site is constantly updated with information on new developments at NARA and regularly adds links to more and more information in our holdings that can be accessed through the Internet.

One example is the Access to Archival Databases, which allows visitors to access more than 85 million historic records, now in electronic form, created by more than 30 Federal agencies. And our Archival Research Catalog, or ARC, now contains descriptions of more than 40 percent of our holdings nationwide, and we are adding to it all the time.

We also are looking inward as we need to make sure NARA is equipped to meet the challenges we have set forth—as well as those we can't foresee. We must be concerned about the loss of our experienced staff through retirements and resignations and the need to replace them with qualified individuals.

To that end, the education requirements for the position of staff archivist were recently changed. The change expands the list of the type of history courses that can be credited toward qualification as an archivist and adds classes in archival science to the lists of coursework needed. Also, opportunities for archival education have expanded beyond history departments to schools of library and information science.

We are facing all these challenges and pursuing all these goals, as I mentioned earlier, in a tight budget environment. In his budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins October 1, the President has requested additional funds for NARA's operating expenses. But that increase will be more than offset by increases in salaries, energy costs, and rent.

The President has not sought any major increases in funding for ERA, although substantial increases in coming years will be necessary to complete the building of ERA.

And as you probably know, the President has, unfortunately, called for zero funding for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, our grant-making arm. The commission's grants are vitally important in supporting projects that preserve historic records that help relate and add to the story of the American national experience.

Since it won grant-making authority in 1964, the NHPRC has awarded $169 million to 4,200 projects involving records held by state and local governments, colleges and universities, nonprofit organizations, and private collections. These grants have had tremendous ripple effects. Today, NHPRC's impact goes far beyond the modest investment in Federal funds made for its grant program. It's an example of how a little spending by NARA can go a long way.

A related initiative which has NARA's total support is the "Partnership for America's Historical Record," a state-based formula grant initiative that would channel funds to state and local archives and local historical societies, among others, with a view to strengthening the understanding of our nation's historical heritage.

These same state archivists working through their council (COSA) have been instrumental in working with NARA personnel, myself included, to lead efforts to recover state and local records, in addition to federal records, damaged during hurricanes Katrina and Rita. NHPRC grants funded much of this effort.

Time does not allow me even to itemize the range of other initiatives already underway throughout the NARA family, many of which hold significant partnership opportunities—implicit or explicit—which we trust will attract our friends elsewhere in the archival community and among nonarchival stakeholders as well.

For example, we have developed some pilot projects with Google about which we will say more in the weeks ahead.

Another partnership beginning to blossom involves NARA and the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, whose director, Dr. Lonnie Bunch, and I serve as co-chairmen of the District of Columbia National History Day committee while we plot other joint initiatives.

We just concluded a successful visit by the key Canadian federal archivists for discussions of joint programming and preservation initiatives.

Our conference on Vietnam at the Kennedy Library brought together in a program activity for the first time all 12 Presidential libraries (that includes the Nixon Library, soon to join the other 11) and NARA in a highly successful joint venture that many of you may have seen on C-SPAN.

Parenthetically, we welcomed our one millionth visitor in 2005 to the National Archives' downtown D.C. headquarters building, and yes, we continue to answer "National Treasure"–inspired questions about the treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence, pointing out patiently to young visitors that the treasure is on the front of the document, not the back. In short, on all fronts and platforms, the work continues.

As I mentioned earlier in my remarks, NARA will be guided in the future by our Strategic Plan, which is now being revised to take us through the period 2007 to 2017. During this revision period, we have sought and received comments and suggestions from our stakeholder and customer groups, and for that we are grateful.

We believe that your views, and those of our other stakeholder and customer groups, are important and allow us to continue to improve the way we provide ready access to the records that document the actions of our government, the rights of our citizens, and our national experience.

I want to assure you, and all who hear and read my words, that NARA's current management, learning from the past as history allows, will devote itself to achieving the goals in a thoroughly transparent manner.

Thank you for inviting me today.

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