About the National Archives

Remarks of Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero as the keynote address at the annual meeting of the Federation of Genealogical Societies. Knoxville, TN

August 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?

The Archivist was introduced by Ransom H. Love, Director of Strategic Relationships for FamilySearch.

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

At the National Archives, we value our relationship with the Federation highly and are proud of the things we accomplish together.

As you well know, genealogy is a subject of great importance to the National Archives. It brings thousands of visitors annually to our facilities and to our web site. We’re the place to start on genealogy research. Our work in genealogy manifests itself in workshops, reference guides, and our annual Genealogy Fair. And our Guide to Genealogy Research is our all-time best-selling publication.

For genealogists, the volume and the vastness of records at the National Archives are staggering. We have records of the decennial census, military service and pensions, immigration and naturalization, federal courts, public land transaction—and more.

And tucked away in the files of Federal departments and agencies are correspondence and other documents that reveal the interaction between individuals and their government over a wide range of personal and public matters. As a result, almost all Americans can find themselves, their ancestors, or their communities in the Archives. The Archives and the Federation have worked closely together for many years and will no doubt continue to do so for many years to come.

Perhaps the best-known result of our continuing partnership is the Malcolm Stern–NARA Gift Fund. As you know, the fund provides financing for the preservation, imaging, and distribution of valuable research materials in the holdings of the National Archives.

Federation members have been generous in supporting the Fund, and this has enabled NARA to extend access to some of our most popular genealogical records.

For example, the Gift Fund paid for duplication and distribution of Canadian border crossing records and 1920 Census enumeration descriptions to our regional archives across the country.

Now, FGS and NARA have agreed on our most ambitious joint project yet.

We have agreed to digitize and make available online the Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Files from the War of 1812. These files are rich resources for family history, containing information about the veteran, his family, and, if we’re really lucky, descriptions of his life in the military.

With the upcoming bicentennial of the War of 1812, sometimes called the Second War of American Independence, NARA and the executive board concluded that it’s time for this project. These records are some of the most-requested records we have, and we estimate that we get 3,000 requests a year for these files.

This project involves more than seven million pages of 180,000 pension case files. The total cost for digitization, at the reduced rate of 50 cents per page, will be more than three million dollars.

The Federation will provide the funding for our Government contractor to digitize the records. And the Federation will make the arrangements for hosting the images and associated metadata. The Malcolm Stern-NARA Gift Fund will also donate a full set of the images and metadata to NARA. And there will be no restrictions on NARA’s use of these donated materials.

We know that once online, the number of people looking for these records will increase exponentially. Further, digitizing these records helps preserve them since they will no longer need to be pulled or handled by staff or researchers.

The National Archives, the FGS Executive Board, and the genealogical community in general have been interested in this project for several years. And we believe that this investment will be more than worth it for genealogical researchers.

I thank FGS—and you— for generously supporting this project.

But our work with the 1812 records is only part of our efforts to get as many records digitized and available to the public as quickly as possible.

Our archival holdings number more than 10 Billion pages of unique textual documents, many of them handwritten—some in ink, some in pencil—as well as maps, charts, aerial and still photographs, and motion picture, sound, and video recordings.

The challenge of digitizing and making available even a small portion of these holdings is enormous. We are, however, making progress by proceeding on various fronts.

NARA has ongoing external digitization partnerships with three organizations that have an interest in genealogical records. Family Search, Ancestry, and Footnote have scanned many of our most popular microfilm publications.

As a result of these partnerships, approximately 130 million images of NARA records are currently online, many of them with newly-created indexes. The NARA web site includes a list linked to the individual titles digitized by these partners. These include such rich genealogical material as census records, World War I draft records, passenger arrival lists, and papers of the Continental Congress.

All NARA facilities nationwide, as well as many libraries and other research institutions, offer free access to all of these images through our partners’ web sites. Partners give NARA digital files of the images and the required descriptive information. The descriptive information may be incorporated into ARC immediately, while the images are ours to use after five years.

Some of our digitizing work is done in-house.

Internally, our initial efforts at in-house digitization of textual records once concentrated on single documents used for exhibits, publications, or similar special uses.

Today, our digital lab is also involved in projects of a much broader scope, most notably the 1940 Census, which we will open in April 2012. We must digitize the census records in-house because of legal restrictions on their release to the public.

The 1940 census reflects many of the changes that took place in America during the Depression of the 1930s. And it will give us a good look at America in the year before we entered World War II.

The 1940 Census forms asked a few questions that had not been part of previous censuses. They include identifying the person in each home who provided the information, the person’s residence in 1935, and whether that person was working in one of the public works programs of the New Deal, such as Works Progress Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps or the National Youth Administration.

The 1940 census will be released --- digitally--- on April 2, 2012. The digital images will be accessible on computers via the Internet, either at home or at one of our facilities. It will not be released on microfilm. Let me bring you up to date on two other things at the Archives that will have a significant impact on genealogy research.

The National Archives will soon be providing wireless Internet access to its registered researchers at our facilities in College Park, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.

We hope that the wireless installation will be of minimal disruption to our researchers as we try to complete the installation work during business hours. However, there may be occasions where the installation will take place in areas and at times where researchers are present.

When completed, any registered researcher with a laptop and a wireless modem card can have wireless access to the Internet. The wireless installation is to be completed this fall.

At the National Archives at Kansas City, we recently accepted more than 300,000 case files about alien residents of the United States from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service.

These files are a rich source of biographical information. Although they were created beginning in 1944, they contain information that could be helpful in genealogy research.

Now, I’d like to talk to you about something a bit different, a bit more intriguing.

President Obama last year launched an Open Government Initiative to bring more transparency, participation, and collaboration to government. We’re taking that seriously at the National Archives, with new initiatives of our own to reach out to new audiences and to involve them more in the work we do.

As part of this outreach, we are making great use of social media. We’re using blogs—so far we’ve got six of them, one of them my own. And we’re on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Flickr and probably more to come. All of it has brought new visitors to NARA via the Internet.

Once we get their attention, we want to bring them in further, to deepen their involvement in our work. . . .the public’s work.

One way we’re doing that is by encouraging Citizen Archivists.

Let me back up and explain this a bit.

We need to rethink our traditional view that professional archivists must do everything.

We need to have an approach that utilizes the expertise of those who use the records in our holdings as well as the collaborative power of the Internet.

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 are interested in a particular person, event, or period in American history and become deeply immersed in their subjects and passionate about the records. They can become more familiar with a certain set of records than our own archivists, each of whom has responsibility for thousands of records. Researchers can be of great help in writing descriptions of these records in partnership with the professional archivists on our staff.

Not long ago, I met Jonathan Webb Deiss, a researcher at the Archives. His knowledge and enthusiasm for discovering treasures makes him a model Citizen Archivist.

Jonathan told me how he found a previously unpublicized Revolutionary War diary in Record Group 46, the Records of the U.S. Senate.

As a knowledgeable and skilled researcher, Jonathan knew that Samuel Leavitt’s journal of his journey to West Point was important. One can easily imagine his excitement and anticipation at that moment of discovery.

Jonathan told me that Leavitt was a soldier from Stratham, New Hampshire. He enlisted in early July 1780 to serve a three month tour. The journal starts on July 5, 1780, and covers his march to West Point, his tour of duty, and his march back to New Hampshire in October 1780.

On page 17 of the diary, Samuel Leavitt describes General George Washington at West Point and hearing the "news of Gen’l Arnold the commander of the Garrison deserting to the Enemy."

Jonathan’s discovery proves there are still treasures to find within our records. With almost 10 billion pieces of paper, we don’t know what researchers, historians, and Citizen Archivists will find in the future. And we don’t know what kind of impact their discoveries will have on scholarship and our understanding of historical events.

Citizen Archivists’ discoveries, like Samuel Leavitt’s Revolutionary War diary, will be added to existing descriptions of our records. This type of collaboration between our staff and those who use our records is crucial. In rethinking our traditional approaches, we need to leverage the knowledge and expertise of Citizen Archivists. Jonathan’s discovery wasn’t the first surprise lurking in the stacks. Archivists don’t have the time to go through the files as closely as researchers do, and that’s why we are sometimes pleasantly surprised.

A few years ago, a researcher brought to the attention of one of our archivists a large piece of paper with a lot of writing on it in very organized form but in a foreign language. It turned out to be a copy the overall plan for the invasion of South Korea in June of 1950, written in Russian. It had been largely unnoticed for decades. Another time, two researchers came across records from a Civil War-era court martial containing the verbatim testimony of Harriett Tubman, the African-American abolitionist and Union spy who ran the Underground Railway. It was significant because Tubman left little in the way of diaries, documents, or other writings. Both of these ended up as subjects of articles in our flagship magazine, Prologue.

In 1996, a private researcher at the Archives discovered in declassified U.S. Army records a list of primarily Jewish unclaimed accounts in a Swiss bank totaling more than $20 million. This list provided proof that information about wartime assets in the highly secretive Swiss Banks could be found in records in the National Archives. This discovery led to lawsuits and congressional hearings to force Swiss banks to disclose the assets they received, and to a re-evaluation of Switzerland's neutrality in World War II. It also set off the biggest wave of archival research since Alex Haley's "Roots" in the mid-1970s. That researcher has been a member of our staff now for nearly 10 years.

Phillip W. Stewart is another example of a Citizen Archivist. He’s a historical film consultant and veteran TV producer and director. In recent years, he has written six reference books to our motion picture holdings—a task that we could not commit staff time to do. They are invaluable resources for researchers.

These are examples of researchers contributing in very interesting ways, ways in which I can see "Citizen Archivists" contributing to our mission.

But in many ways genealogists have been Citizen Archivists for many years.

Every day, genealogical research turns up new information and stories about people and events. Genealogists pull information from a variety of documents to provide more details of the story of our people and our nation and put it into a context that we at the Archives cannot.

And that newly-discovered information enriches the holdings that future historians and genealogists will use to tell the full stories of America and the people who made it.

Other researchers, some of whom use particular records frequently in their research, have helped us track down stolen records.

In recent years, stolen records have been discovered for sale on the Internet, and these researchers alerted us so we could notify proper authorities, recover the stolen documents, and put the thieves behind bars.

In our Open Government Plan, we describe how we will develop initiatives to increase public engagement in our mission. Many of our traditional archival roles may not be appropriate for Citizen Archivists. However, we will work to find suitable opportunities for public projects for them.

What types of Citizen Archivist projects are possible?

We don’t know yet.

We need to articulate projects and narratives that speak to those already interested in specific records and to reach those who have a more general interest. We want to design projects that make adding real value to our work exciting and fun so we can cultivate both professional and nonprofessional "citizen archivists."

We’re going to let creativity spur innovation to help us achieve our mission. We have a lot of exciting work ahead of us.

In our Open Government Plan, we discuss developing an Archives Wiki, similar to the UK National Archives "Your Archives."

One reason I like this project is that individuals who have passion for certain groups of records can find their niche and contribute to our understanding of records. Their enthusiasm is shown in their willingness to contribute their expertise.

I hope you’ll consider sharing your discoveries on our Archives wiki, a pilot project we launched this summer. This space will allow you to share your researcher, tips, and treasures. If you’d like to be involved in this project, please e-mail socialmedia@nara.gov for more information.

In addition to helping us accomplish sizable tasks, engaging the public as citizen archivists can also help us achieve important public education goals. Through citizen archivist projects, we can increase public knowledge of our work as well as inspire future generations of archivists.

This will also further our goal of civic literacy by engaging the public more and emphasizing to them that records not only exist, but can be seen and used as valuable teaching tools.

Again, thank you for inviting me here today. I look forward to a long and productive relationship between our two organizations.

And don’t forget to visit our National Archives Booth in the Exhibit Hall, Booths 405 and 407. Thank you.

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