About the National Archives

Prepared Remarks of Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero, “The View from Washington:  The First 356 Days,” given at the Metropolitan New York Library Council meeting. New York City

October 28, 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 inviting me here today to give you the view from the National Archives and Records Administration — at least the view as I see it after 356 days as Archivist of the United States.

It has been a challenging and exciting year for me — heading an agency that is unique in government and vitally important to our democracy.

NARA’s role in government is clear and simple: We are the nation’s record keeper. We safeguard and preserve the records of our Federal Government and make them easily accessible so our citizens can use them and learn from them.

The records that end up in our permanent holdings represent only about 2 to 3 percent of all those created by federal departments and agencies.

But they are the most important records.

Once upon a time—and not so long ago—these records were all on paper, and we provided access to them wherever they were located among the National Archives facilities around the country:

  • 14 Regional Archives
  • 17 Federal Records Centers
  • 13 Presidential Libraries
  • The National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, and
  • Our Facilities in the Washington area.

In all these locations, we have accessioned 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 so far around 100 terabytes of electronic records—81 of these terabytes are from the George W. Bush White House alone.

Over the years, many thousands—millions—of people have come to us for genealogy information in the form of ship’s records, immigration lists, or Civil War pension files. 

Millions more contact our St. Louis facility for their military records to qualify for government benefits.

Others consult the records of Congress we hold in Washington to enrich their understanding of representative government, and still others visit our Presidential libraries to learn more about our most recent chief executives.

Historians, journalists, and lawyers pour over millions of pages as they write books, articles, and legal briefs. And our regional archives are often first stops for information about family histories or trials in federal courts around the country.

And, now, more and more people are visiting us on the Internet.

* * *

The past 356 days have been a very busy and very enlightening time for me. Apart from my four years in the Navy, it’s the first time I’ve worked for the Federal Government, and it has proven to be different  . . .and disturbing.

Let me explain.

When I arrived, I found an agency that lagged in adapting to new technologies.

I found an agency that needed to be more nimble. 

I found an agency that needed to take risks in trying new approaches to recordkeeping.

And I found an agency that needed to make smarter and more creative use of technology.

I found an agency in need of a culture change to be able to exist and thrive in the digital age.

But I also found a means to help me begin to bring about that culture change:  President Obama’s Open Government Initiative.

The President began his administration with an Open Government Initiative to create a culture of transparency, participation, and collaboration in and among Federal agencies.

Its goal: Transform the relationship between government and the people.

The principles of open government—as outlined by the President—are, to a great extent, already embedded in the mission statement and strategic goals of the National Archives and Records Administration.

After all, the essence of the work we do every day is the belief that citizens have the right to see, examine, and learn from the records that document the actions of their government.  But in this digital age, we have the opportunity to do more.   

In response to the President’s request of all agencies and departments, we developed our own Open Government Plan.  And, in keeping with his Open Government Initiative, we are working to encourage more participation and collaboration in our work, both within our staff—and especially with the public.

An example: “Citizen Archivists.”

My experience in libraries over the years convinces me that we learn so much more about our holdings when someone who makes use of the materials helps us better understand and describe what we have.

Often, researchers and authors become quite interested in a particular person, event, or period in American history and become more familiar with the records than our busy professional archivists.

These researchers—these ordinary citizens—can be of great help in writing descriptions of these records in collaboration with our professional staff.  This is a way the public can make major contributions in describing and understanding the records being preserved for their use.

But let me tell you about our major efforts to reach out and engage employees and the public by leveraging the power of the Internet. 

  • We are redesigning our main web site to maximize public participation as well as develop streamlined search capabilities.

  • We are reaching beyond the main web site to reach public users where they are by using social media tools such as Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, and Twitter.

  • We are seeking employee engagement through blogs, webinars and other social media tools to allow greater communication among staff and management located in 18 states and the District of Columbia.

  • We are publishing high value data sets to allow the public to take government information and create new interfaces or innovative online experiences. 

Some other things going on to advance “open government” involve three important “offices” within NARA that have government-wide responsibilities. They are the National Declassification Center, the Office of Government Information Services, and the Information Security Oversight Office.

The mere existence within NARA of these “offices” reflects the favorable view of and confidence in the Archives held by Congress and the President.

First, the National Declassification Center.

We are reviewing, on an expedited basis, a backlog of about 400 million pages of records that have been classified for years.  We work with the agencies that created the records as well as other agencies whose classified information is included in them.

The goal is to declassify as many of them as possible. Records with high public interest and those with a high likelihood of being declassified are getting priority.

These records include some that pertain to military operations and World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War — all of which are of great interest to historians. The deadline to finish these reviews is December 31, 2013.

Each year, we accession 15 million additional pages of classified information, creating the potential of a future backlog. That’s why it’s important for us to eliminate the current backlog and develop a plan to avoid future backlogs.

The National Declassification Center oversees all this work with the motto:   “releasing all we can, protecting what we must.”

One of the things that has made records processing more difficult and time consuming is the fact that more than 2,000 different declassification guidelines exist throughout the Government. The Center is now overseeing the development of common guidelines for all departments and agencies.

A year ago we established the Office of Government Information Services, which monitors activity government-wide under the Freedom of Information Act.  Its mission: Improving the FOIA process and resolving disputes between Federal agencies and FOIA requesters.

The FOIA act grants the legal right for any person to obtain access to information in the departments and agencies of the executive branch of government. The only limitations are the nine categories that the law exempts, such as classified records pertaining to national security.

Described by Congress as the FOIA Ombudsman, this office is specifically charged with reviewing policies and procedures and compliance with the act by departments and agencies. And it recommends to Congress and the President any changes needed to improve FOIA administration.

Very few denials of records under this act are appealed. Such actions involve significant administrative and legal costs. We work with the Department of Justice—as well as with other agencies, requesters, and freedom-of-information advocates—to find ways to make the act work more effectively and efficiently.

Our Information Security Oversight Office oversees the classification programs of government and industry—ensuring public access where appropriate, but safeguarding national security information. This office also reviews requests for original classification authority from agencies and does on-site inspections to monitor compliance with security requirements.

Not all sensitive information is classified, however, and this office is leading the effort to reform the system for managing “sensitive but unclassified” or “controlled unclassified information.”

* * *

The backbone of Open Government is good records management. Without it, it is impossible for the public to understand their rights and entitlements and the actions of the Government.  Without good records management, it is impossible for us to learn from the past and plan for the future. 

However, across government today, there is cause for concern.

The results of self-assessment data this year from Federal agencies indicates that four out of five reporting agencies have moderate to high levels of risk associated with their records management programs. And this is particularly the case with electronic records.

Electronic records create new problems and challenges. 

Records coming to us from other federal agencies and departments and the White House now are not on paper, but in electronic form—records that were born digital.

They come to us as text documents, e-mails, digital images, web pages, spread sheets, satellite imagery, and eventually blogs, tweets, and all the other kinds of “records” that we are creating in this digital age.

They present some serious records management challenges. But we will meet this challenge and strengthen our leadership role by finding and developing cost-effective IT solutions.

While there is no magic answer to the challenge of preserving 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. This includes both those that are born-digital and traditional records that have been digitized.

The idea is to make these records accessible far into the future by anyone, anywhere at any time. And they will be free from dependence on any specific hardware or software used to create them.

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

At the same time we’re embracing our role in electronic records, we’ll be reaching out to more customers by using 21st century means––social media.

Let me make one thing clear.  The National Archives plans to be a leader in government in the use of social media, and we have embarked on it in a big way. 

Web 2.0 is altering how people interact with the National Archives. Last year, we launched our YouTube page and made our first Tweet. Within a month, one of our videos had gone viral and received more than 15,000 views in a single day. Within the nine months, our films were viewed more than 100,000 times. Less than four months later that number doubled.

Our YouTube channel is part of a suite of social media projects launched at the National Archives spanning the blogosphere, wikis, Twitter, Flickr and Facebook.

We maintain seven blogs to inform customers. They provide news of the latest developments in genealogical research, historical anecdotes, information from the regional archives, or the latest from the Archivist himself – my own blog!

A year ago we had two Facebook pages. Now we have more than 20. Our primary Facebook page has more than 8,000 fans from 17 countries, and adds almost a hundred fans a week. We sent our first tweet last year, and now we’re heavily involved in the Twittersphere with more than 10,000 followers across seven Twitter feeds.

These projects are only the beginning, however, especially as we focus on mobile technologies. Our flagship publication, Prologue Magazine, now has a growing number of subscribers on the iPad, iPhone, and Droid. We are overhauling our website to be mobile-friendly, and we are geo-tagging our photos when possible.

Generation Y—who just this year blew past the Baby Boomers in terms of overall population share—uses this stuff the way our generation relied on the daily mail and the newspaper. 

As a result, the whole commerce of information has changed permanently.  It took radio 38 years to reach an audience of 50 million; television reached the saturation point in 13 years; the Internet in 4 years; and the iPod in 3 years.  In less than 9 months, Facebook added 100 million users. 

And speaking of Facebook, the new movie, The Social Network, provides a good look at how quickly Facebook was developed and grown and how quickly the social media landscape can change. Of course this is ancient history, since it harkens back to 2004.

Every day, the National Archives is more wired for a wireless world. Our buildings in both College Park and downtown Washington are being wired for Wi-Fi this fall. 

One day soon, I predict, we will have the first Social Media Archivist, whose job it is to figure out how to tame the dragons we have set free.

* * *

Even with all these changes, we needed to make some structural changes to the agency I found when I took office 356 days ago––structural changes that would make a culture change easier.

Now, we are preparing to implement on a plan to transform ourselves into an agency focused on the new and ever-growing needs of both our customers and our staff in a quickly-changing digital era.

Last summer, I appointed a small task force to come up with a plan to transform the agency. The draft was shared with the staff, and hundreds of comments were received. Last week, I approved the final plan.

The plan outlines a major reorganization of NARA––one that reduces redundancies, streamlines decision-making, and lays the foundation for a very different way of doing business.  It will make it easier for our staff to provide better services to our customers.

The plan reflected what I felt was a need to make sure our organizational structure reflected our goal of making six key transformations over the next five years.

Those transformations involve:

  • Working as one NARA, not just as component parts.
  • Embracing the primacy of electronic information in all facets of our work and position NARA to lead accordingly.
  • Fostering a culture of leadership, not just as a position but as the way we all conduct our work.
  • Transforming NARA into a great place to work through trust and empowerment of all of our staff, the agency’s most vital resource.
  • Creating structures and processes to allow our staff to more effectively meet the needs of our customers.
  • Opening our organizational boundaries to learn from others.

We now have a Transformation Launch Team at work preparing an implementation plan for the reorganization, but a reorganized agency will not in itself change things.

That change will come from our staff— the best and the brightest there are––equipped with the proper tools in an environment where success is possible.

Thank you.

About the National Archives >

The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
1-86-NARA-NARA or 1-866-272-6272

.