About the National Archives

Prepared Remarks of Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero at the Best Practices Exchange: Libraries and Archives in the Digital Era. Phoenix, Arizona

October 18, 2010

Who is the Archivist?

David S. Ferriero
David S. Ferriero The Archivist of the United States is the head of our agency, appointed by the President of the United States.

The AOTUS Blog


What's an Archivist?

Thank you for that kind introduction and for inviting me to speak today.

I’d like to start with a bit of National Archives history.

Robert Digges Wimberly Connor was teaching history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the early 1930s when President Franklin D. Roosevelt accepted the recommendations of the archival community and selected him to run the new Archives of the United States of America.

Connor arrived in Washington to find the National Archives Building still under construction and learned that he and his staff would not be moving in for more than a year.

In gathering government documents for inclusion in the new Archives, Connor and his staff discovered that records around the government had not been well-preserved. They had been stored in depositories fraught with hazards. They were exposed to dirt, rain, sunlight, theft and fire. Some were infested with silverfish, cockroaches, rats, mice and other vermin.

Connor also reported:

"In another depository crowded with archives of the Government, the most prominent object to one entering the room was the skull of a dead cat protruding from under a pile of valuable records. If a cat with nine lives to risk in the cause of history could not survive the conditions of research in the depositories of our national archives, surely the poor historian with only one life to give to his country may be excused if he declines to take the risk."

I am happy to report that I found no such dangers when I took over the job of Archivist last year.

Seventy-six years after Professor Connor’s disturbing discoveries, the Archives is a busy, independent, and open institution, with locations in 17 states and the District of Columbia.

In all these locations, we have accumulated as permanent records more than 10 billion pages of textual documents; 7.2 million maps, charts, and architectural drawings; more than 14 million still photographs; billions of machine-readable data sets; and more than 365,000 reels of film and 110,000 videotapes.

And, in the fastest growing category, we have around 100 terabytes of electronic records—81 of these terabytes are from the George W. Bush White House alone.

* * *

What I did find when I arrived, however, was an agency lagging in adapting to new technologies to be able to exist and thrive in the digital age.

I found an agency in need of a culture change.

The National Archives needs to be more nimble. It needs to take risks in trying new approaches to recordkeeping. And it needs to make smarter and more creative use of technology. 

We are now developing a plan to transform the Archives to better meet the challenges of the digital era and the needs of our customers in the coming decades.

And, in keeping with President Obama’s Open Government Initiative, we are working to encourage more participation and collaboration in our work, both with the public and internally, and do it in a transparent way.

In the meantime, NARA's agency-wide digitization and preservation activities are resulting in tremendous growth in our information and data needs.

While there is no silver bullet to preserve electronic records, we are working this issue in a variety of ways.

We are building the Electronic Records Archives, or ERA, to hold the Federal Government’s electronic records.

Eventually, ERA will hold all the most important records – about two to three percent of all those created every day. This includes both those that are born-digital or traditional records that have been digitized.

The idea is to make these records accessible far into the future—free from dependence on any specific hardware or software used to create them.

These records then will be accessible to the public at anytime from anywhere in the world.

When ERA is fully operational in 2012, it will be mandatory for all federal agencies to move their permanent records to the ERA.

* * *

In recognition of the dramatic leap forward that the Electronic Records Archives represents, we are evaluating our current business practices and adjusting them to take full advantage of the digital preservation capabilities offered by ERA.

The traditional methods of appraisal, transfer, management, preservation, and delivery are all under review to ensure that NARA is able to achieve its goal of preserving and providing access to the records of our government.

The staff of the Modern Records Program recently completed a survey of the electronic formats currently represented in NARA's holdings.

These have been ranked based on the number of records that they represent, the importance of those records, reference demand, and the difficulty they present in providing meaningful access to our users.

The survey showed that our highest priorities should be mainframe computer output, geographic data, and relational databases. These results are being used to guide the development of ERA's preservation capabilities. Although the survey presents our current electronic holdings,

NARA is actively analyzing current and emerging formats in use across the government so we are prepared for them when the time comes.

***

To preserve traditional paper records in electronic formats, we are also taking a strategic approach to digitization.

We are searching for ways to step up our efforts in this massive undertaking by determining which records should get priority in digitization. And, of course, we want to know how to accomplish as much digitization as possible at the least cost in the least amount of time.

Our Special Media Preservation Staff members are providing technical expertise on digital formats and are building the infrastructure and knowledge base needed to provide transformation services for accessioned digital audio and video recordings.

The staff is about to conclude a project to analyze, standardize and document the analog and digital products produced within that division, as well as the services provided from the customer perspective.

Among other benefits, this will enable us to increase transparency and bring us into alignment with similar institutions and established best practices. It will also allow us to develop proactive quality control and plan for better integration into other NARA systems, including our Archival Research Catalog, the Electronic Records Archives, and other distribution outlets. This information will be available to the public through our web site, Archives.gov, in the coming months.

The Special Media Preservation Staff also works closely with counterparts at other agencies, including the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution, through the Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines Initiative, or FADGI (FAH-JEE). They focus on topics of shared interest, including establishing standards and best practices.

Through the FADGI group, the staff plays key roles in collective efforts such as

  • Defining and codifying technical metadata parameters for digital video preservation files,
  • Developing structured embedded metadata schemas and open source tools for digital audio preservation files, and
  • Establishing technical guidelines for digital still image preservation files.

The outcomes of the collaborative work not only benefit NARA and FADGI members but also the wider cultural heritage of the community at large.

The Special Media Preservation staff has established a temporary but secure and centralized storage and backup for digital files on a Storage Area Network. This is an important first step toward eventually ingesting currently digitized material into ERA.
 
And this team is developing document preparation activities to support internal and external digitization of analog materials— textual records, photographs, maps and architectural plans.

Digitizing records, as you know, is an enormous, expensive and time-consuming undertaking. That’s why we have partnered with non-government entities to digitize some of our most-requested records so they can be available to researchers online as quickly as possible.

***

The Office of Information Services is deploying a unified server and storage architecture that integrates new technologies to provide storage and backup for NARA's digitization and preservation workflow needs. It will have the capability to expand up to hundreds of Petabytes.

The enterprise storage infrastructure will provide instantaneous primary and backup storage capability and data recovery.  It will be located at three NARA locations: College Park, Maryland; Rocket Center, West Virginia; and St. Louis, Missouri. Each site will start out with approximately one Petabyte of storage capability.

Our Office of Information Services is also supporting digital preservation by identifying the process flows and functional requirements for internal NARA digitization projects for preservation, exhibits, reference requests and special projects.

This will include the release—in digital format—of the 1940 Census in April 2012.

And this office is supporting the digitization initiatives by reviewing the current work and future plans in the regional archives, the regional records centers, and the Presidential libraries.

***

Our Modern Records Program is contributing to NARA’s digital preservation initiatives in far-reaching ways that recognize the importance of enhancing preservation throughout the lifecycle of records.

Achieving the goal of providing meaningful access to the permanently valuable records of our government requires that we address the needs of agencies and their records and we are doing this in the following ways:  

  • First, we recognize that the adoption of good records management practices provides the most cost effective means of preserving electronic records.

    We ensure that the permanent records transferred to NARA are organized and described by the creating agencies in a manner conducive to long-term preservation. That allows us to be able to focus our energies on developing effective strategies for the storage, management, and transformation of these records once they are in our custody.

    We want to hasten and improve the adoption of good records management across the federal government. Accordingly, we are working with agencies to extend these principles to complex and difficult record types and technologies such as e-mail, blogs, cloud computing and shared network storage. 

  • Second, we are assisting agencies in creating preservable records carried in sustainable formats and at quality levels that ensure the authenticity of information that they convey.

  • Third, we are meeting with agencies and are documenting the current and emerging formats being used to create both temporary and permanent records. Many of these records are in new formats as the result of Web 2.0 and the rise of the use of social media.  Now, we will need to integrate records management into social media policy.

    My intent is to make the National Archives the leader in government in the use of social media by leveraging the power of the Internet. At last count, we have seven “blogs”— including my own.  We have a strong social media presence that includes 24 Facebook sites, seven Twitter accounts, six YouTube locations and our own Wiki—just to name a few.

    We are also redesigning our web site, Archives.gov. So, later this year, you’ll see a new, less-cluttered, easier-to-navigate web site for the National Archives. Please visit us.

  • Fourth, we are analyzing our current transfer guidance policies and products. We are working to revise them to account for changes in our capabilities and to better support the records management efforts underway in federal agencies.

***

The goals of digital preservation are, to a great extent, already embedded in the mission statement and strategic goals of our agency. It reads:

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.

All of this will involve a real change for our 76-year-old agency—not only in our processes, but also in the culture of the agency.

Digital preservation has become much more complex today, but we also owe it to future generations to find technological solutions to preserve the records of today’s government, as well as the records of our past as a democracy.

Together, NARA and Federal agencies will be able to find these solutions, but it will only happen with your support.

I look forward to working with all of you in opening up our government and, together, meeting the challenges that this new century presents to us.

Thank you for having me here today.

About the National Archives >

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