About the National Archives

Remarks to Genealogy Groups: Excerpts

Following are edited excerpts from speeches given between June and September of 2006 by the Archivist of the United States, Allen Weinstein, to the following groups:

National Genealogical Society (Chicago, June 7)
National Institute on Genealogical Research (College Park, July 17)
International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (New York, August 13)
Federation of Genealogical Societies (Boston, August 31)
African American Genealogy Symposium (College Park, September 8)


Electronic Records

In the years just ahead, one of the greatest challenges for NARA is preserving and providing access to the rapidly growing number of electronic records being created in the Federal Government.

The first increment of ERA is scheduled to be ready next year. However, you can get an idea of what ERA will be like with our Archival Research Catalog, or ARC, and with Access to Archival Databases, or AAD.

ARC now offers Internet visitors descriptions of more than 40 percent of our holdings nationwide, and we’re adding to it all the time. AAD allows these visitors to access more than 85 million historic records, now in electronic form, created by more than 30 Federal agencies. As time goes by, these databases will grow and become even more useful for genealogy research.

Digitizing Archival Holdings

We are also eager to have genealogical information available to everyone via the Internet We expect that the new technologies that will come with ERA will help address the challenge of long-term preservation of Federal records relating to family history and genealogy that are already being stored electronically in the private sector.

And NARA has in the works partnerships with private organizations that will lead to more digitizing of information now available only on paper or microfilm. Let me mention only two of them.

Earlier this year, we announced a partnership between the Kennedy Library and the EMC Corporation of suburban Boston to digitize the entire collection of papers, documents, photographs, and audio recordings of President Kennedy and make them accessible to anyone in the world via the Internet.

This project will, of course, take years to complete, but I have the utmost confidence in our staff to bring it to a successful conclusion And we are indebted to the EMC Corporation for providing us with the resources and technical expertise for this historic initiative This is the first project of its kind and could be a harbinger of things to come.

Also earlier this year, NARA entered into an agreement with Google for a pilot program to make some of the holdings of the National Archives available online This is an important step for us to achieve our goal of becoming an “archives without walls.”

Today, you can go to the Google web site on the Internet and see a collection of rare, historical films from our holdings. These films represent an invaluable tool for making history more enriching and exciting for students and teachers.

Civic Literacy and Educational Resources

If preserving electronic records represents a key challenge to NARA, strengthening civic literacy runs a close second.  Without an essential level of civic literacy in the general population, all of the outstanding scholarly and journalistic achievements we enable will be of little use to people who have lost touch with their history.

Of course, education activities were already fairly robust at the Archives when I arrived in February 2005—from programs in the regional archives and Presidential libraries to those activities based in Washington, DC Now, those programs have a flagship in the new Learning Center, open at the National Archives Building in downtown Washington.

The Learning Center will enhance and strengthen our efforts to reach into the nation’s classrooms and help students and teachers study history, civics, and social studies in a more engaging way by using primary documents.  These primary documents chronicle the actions and decisions of government officials, and one of  NARA’s goals is to make these available to the public as soon as possible.

Classification of Records

In connection with accessibility, a Presidential executive order from 1995 directed the declassification, by the end of this year, of all Federal records at least 25 years old, with the exception of sensitive documents relating to national security However, starting in 1999, a number of records that had been declassified were quietly removed from open shelves at NARA by their originating agency for possible “reclassification.”  Some of this was done under “classified” agreements that only recently came to light.

This spring, an audit revealed that more than one-third of the records withdrawn from NARA shelves should not have been withdrawn—since they contained no information that needed to be reclassified These records are now being placed back on the public shelves, and NARA staff is developing guidelines and regulations for future classification and reclassification of documents.

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.

In the future, if any records are removed 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. At NARA, we are in the business of assuring access. There can never be a classified aspect to our mission.

National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC)

The 2007 budget proposed by the President tightens the resources available to NARA It contains no 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 add to the story of the American national experience and to family histories.

Since it won grant-making authority in 1964, the commission 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, as many of you know, and demonstrate that a modest investment in Federal funds can have a major impact.

For example, NHPRC grants have gone to the Freedom History Project, an ongoing documentary edition on Emancipation, including the Freedman’s Bureau and the Black Petitions Project A recent grant is supporting a project to organize and make available now-inaccessible African American collections on the campuses of the University of Alabama and Tuskegee University Another recent grant has gone to Northeastern University for its African American and Latino History Project.

Processing of Records

Yet, even as we face limited resources, our workload continues to increase On becoming Archivist last year, I discovered that we are also facing a huge backlog of unprocessed records not yet available to the public. Despite the fiscal constraints, we are determined to provide more effective service to the public by refocusing our attention and resources on reducing, and in time eliminating, the backlog so researchers have access to these records. We are making changes in staff assignments to help us meet this goal and, obviously, additional funding for such processing is crucial

As you undoubtedly know, we have completed a five-year project preserving and microfilming the records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands—popularly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau We now have copies of the microfilm in all our reading rooms—in Washington and at our regional archives around the country.

The Freedmen’s Bureau records represent one of the richest sources available of genealogical and historical information about African Americans.  Already, it has had a great impact on the study of those Americans who went through the transition from slavery to citizenship during and after the Civil War.

Genealogy

The genealogy community is the Archives’ biggest stakeholder group, and I expect genealogy will always be a very large part of the mission of the National Archives. As Archivist, I will continue my personal involvement with the major archival groups The story of America is more than the story of historic figures making landmark decisions. It is the story of individuals and families, seeking and exercising their Constitutional rights, striving for a better life, and nurturing an open and vibrant democracy.

The stories of America and its citizens are told in records that have benefited over the years from your help.  I want to take this occasion to acknowledge the support over the years from the Malcolm Stern-NARA Gift Fund and the National Institute on Genealogical Research Alumni Association Your generosity makes possible many of the microfilms of genealogical interest available in our reading rooms nationwide.

As you all know so well, any record with a name, date, and place on it is of potential use by genealogists, and that covers just about all the records we have in the National Archives These records are important not only for documenting the actions of government. They also often provide the missing link in an individual’s search for family roots or documentation of U.S. citizenship to qualify for a government benefit or to obtain a passport.

And as I believe many of you already know, my parents were immigrants to this country from czarist Russia as young people, and my educational progression—P.S. 79, J.H.S. 79, DeWitt Clinton High School, and City College—mirrors that of many families in this room Since becoming archivist, I have sought and received greater knowledge of my parents’ lives and have been richly rewarded with the able assistance of NARA staff by obtaining their ship arrival records and their petitions for naturalization.

I learned a great deal about my parents from these immigration records.

  • For one thing, “Americanization” began at Ellis Island In my parents’ case, it started with names:  my mother’s, “Sore Papkow,” when she boarded the ship to America, became Sarah Popkoff at Ellis Island “Zalman Weinstein,” my father, became Samuel Weinstein.
  • For another, it reminded me that family lore is not necessarily factual Despite a family narrative that placed my mother at the Triangle Shirt Waist Company during the tragic 1911 fire in New York City, the records show that she actually arrived in this country three years after the fire.
  • How young they both were:  my mother was 16 My father was a robust 14 who had traveled through Europe alone and then added two years onto his age in the government records in order not to be sent back to Russia.
  • Finally, the fragility of memory:  my father and mother both in later years adopted birthdays far different from those on their immigration and marriage records.
    Oh yes, the documents show that they had a son born on the same day as me but named “Alden.”  A typing error or the name I have not used but should?  Take your pick.

ALLEN WEINSTEIN
Archivist of the United States

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