About the National Archives

Remarks of Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero at the 56th annual ARMA International Conference and Expo at Gaylord National Hotel and Conference Center,Maryland.

October 17, 2011

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?

I am pleased to be with you this morning. And it is a special pleasure for me to welcome you to the Washington, D.C., area, which, as you know, has been the home base of the National Archives since our founding more than 75 years ago. 

For those of you who have never visited, you are in for a special treat tonight.  Pay close attention to the Declaration of Independence.  Although there is no map on the back as Nicolas Cage would like you to believe, there is a handprint in the lower left corner.  Whose we don’t know!

When Robert Connor, the nation’s very first Archivist, reflected on his early days in Washington, he reported, "For several months after my arrival in Washington, friends invariably introduced me to strangers with the apologetic explanation, 'Mr. Connor is our first archivist.' With a perfectly blank stare, the other invariably countered with, 'And just what is an archivist?''

More than 70 years later, this meeting is one of the few places where I don’t have to answer that question. To most audiences today I still have to explain that no, we are not part of the Library of Congress! No, we’re not part of the Smithsonian.

As professional records and information managers, you know what archives are. More importantly, you share with the men and women who work at the National Archives of the United States a dedication not only to preserving records, but to making them as useful and accessible to your customers.

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For the National Archives, of course, our customers are the American people. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government… that [w]henever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.”

His words resonate even more powerfully today. To keep a democracy healthy and vibrant in the 21st Century, its citizens must be well informed. Information, especially about the actions of government, must be circulated, available and put to use by as many people as possible.

At the Archives, this ideal is embedded in our mission. The work we do everyday is rooted in the belief that citizens have the right to see, examine, and learn from the records that guarantee their rights, document government actions, and tell the story of the nation.

In addition, President Obama has made it clear that this ideal should be part of the mission of all government agencies. Here’s how he put it when he issued his Open Government Directive at the beginning of his term:

“My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government.  We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration.  Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”

Last month, he underlined that commitment when he spoke at the General Assembly of the United Nations, and discussed the U.S. National Action Plan for the international Open Government Partnership. The U.S. Plan states that "The backbone of a transparent and accountable government is strong records management that documents the decisions and actions of the Federal Government."  

The President then announced that the administration will soon be launching a new initiative to reform records management, which “will seek a reformed, digital-era, government-wide records management framework that promotes accountability and performance.”

This, of course, is music to our ears.  It’s always nice when your boss recognizes the importance of the work you do!

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As we gear up for the launch of the President’s records management initiative, I thought I would share with you the steps that the National Archives is taking to translate into action our commitment and how we’re using the principles of strong records management to promote openness.

My focus will be on two aspects of on electronic records management and openness at the Archives. First, as every one in this room knows, electronic records are not only the wave of the future, they dominate our present.

And second, ARMA chose the date of this conference very well. You meet here just 17 days after the National Archives achieved a major electronic records management milestone.

First, the growing importance of electronic records to our work. Unlike the people who come to Washington to attend an ARMA conference, most tourists know the Archives simply as the place where basic documents of American history, such as the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence are kept.

They are probably unaware that in addition to more than 12 billion document pages, 40 million photographs, and miles and miles of video and film, we have 5.3 billion electronic records—the fastest growing part of the collection. 

Let me give you just one illustration of that growth. As you know, we operate and maintain all of the Presidential Libraries, the newest the George W. Bush Library in Dallas, which opens in 2013.
In the decades that followed, electronic data was created in a bewildering array of formats, each one wiping out the one that came before. The floppies of our recent past are all but useless.  You may remember WordPerfect, FoxPro, Netscape Navigator, MS-DOS, and my favorite, EPCDIC (extended binary coded decimal interchange code)

The good news for the National Archives is that, when it comes to electronic records, we’ve had the benefit of forward looking leadership, people who anticipated many of the challenges we’d be facing.

For example, in 1998 NARA electronic records specialists saw that we’d need a flexible, scalable system so we could not only store the skyrocketing volume of electronic records, but also handle the wide variety of formats used by Federal agencies and the White House.

And, we would need a system that would allow us to serve our most important customers, the American people, by making electronic records accessible and open over time. 

To meet those future needs, the Archivist at the time, John Carlin, approved launch of a major new initiative, the Electronic Records Archives project, or ERA. 

The first phase of the project was to determine what the new system should do.  That was when we made a critically important decision, which everyone at this conference can appreciate: although the primary purpose of ERA would be to preserve electronic records and make them accessible, ERA would also be a workflow system. It would allow Federal agencies to conduct records management transactions with NARA electronically. 

More specifically, the records management part of the system would allow agencies to create records retention schedules and transfer documentation for records in all formats, not just electronic records. 

That meant that in addition to modernizing records management throughout the Federal government, the National Archives could use ERA to collect archival metadata. As a result, from the moment it entered the system, any newly ingested document transferred to us from an agency would be associated with its records schedule and accession information.

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During the conference, you’ll have the chance to hear from NARA staff members who are much better versed in the technical development of ERA. For now let me give you some of the highlights.

NARA received the first functional part of the ERA system for Federal records in 2008.  Itincluded the basic electronic records storage system at a secure off-site location, connections to NARA facilities, and the records management workflow for scheduling and accessioning.  I now approve records schedules and dispositions electronically.

It turned out that Presidential records, which the Archives would be receiving in January 2009, posed different challenges than other government records.  So we decided to create a specialized component of ERA for Presidential records. That went live in late 2008 and started ingesting Bush records on schedule in January 2009.

We also deployed a simple system specifically designed to meet the needs of Congressional records, in January 2010.  This year, we added a component of ERA designed for the restricted records of the 2010 Census and another component of ERA for National Security Classified records.  Both of these bodies of records require special restrictions on access and could not be stored in the Base system for Federal records.

I said earlier that ARMA is meeting here this week only 17 days after a major e-records milestone for the National Archives. That milestone occurred September 30. That was the day NARA concluded the initial development phase of ERA, and selected IBM to provide operations and maintenance.

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So where are we on ERA, as I speak to you today?

As we enter the O&M phase, ERA is now storing 124 terabytes of records from Congress, Federal Agencies and the White House, as I mentioned earlier. Moreover, working with the Office of Management and Budget, we have embarked on an ambitious plan to have every Federal agency adopt ERA for scheduling and accessioning records in all formats by the end of 2012. At that time, all Federal agencies will be required to use ERA to schedule and transfer to the National Archives all permanent electronic and non-electronic records.

The plan is proceeding in two phases. We’re now at the end of phase one, during which we’ve been working with the 30 federal agencies that are members of the Federal CIO Council.  These include most of the cabinet-level agencies, the military services, the Environmental Protection Agency and others. The goal of Phase I is to have all of these agencies using ERA by November of this year.

As of September 30, 23 out of the 30 agencies have started using ERA, a 77 percent adoption rate.  That means each one has at least had staff members go through the training and obtain user accounts. Many have done far more extensive work with ERA.

In Phase II, our goal is to add about 160 other agencies and agency components of the Federal Government, to ERA by September 2012.

Have there been bumps along the way? Of course. Will there be future challenges? I’d be amazed if there weren’t. But we’re very proud of the progress we’ve made with ERA.

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Less than two decades ago, we were storing a few thousand electronic data files. A simple computer program was used to copy each transferred file to a new magnetic tape for physical preservation, and to print the start of each file. That was so that archivists could visually inspect the printout to see if the contents of the files corresponded to technical information we had about them. A very tedious process.

Public access to electronic records was extremely limited; records were available only by purchasing copies of the files on magnetic tapes or, in a few cases, ordering printouts of the files.

Today ERA is storing a collection of electronic records so vast that it can be hard to comprehend.  For the first time we are providing Federal agencies a way to perform their records management actions with us electronically. 

ERA is also enabling a new era of government openness. Late last year we launched Online Public Access, or OPA.  OPA provides a public portal for access to our digitized ERA records as well as information about records in all formats. 

You could call it a Google for the Archives.

I want to emphasize that, though we are very proud of how far we have come with ERA, we are just as aware that the journey continues.

ERA will evolve as electronic records change and new technology options become available to us; that’s what the system was designed to do.  ERA will also evolve to help us do an even better job of providing the access and openness that are so vital to the functioning of our democratic system.

* * * * *

Before closing, I want to report on another breakthrough on the records management landscape—our efforts to recognize the need for a job classification for records managers across the Federal Government.

Currently, records managers are formally classified in a variety of positions that encompass a wide range of duties and grades.

Earlier this year, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) proposed the establishment of a new occupational series encompassing information management functions related to the Freedom of Information Act, Privacy Act, and Records Management.

This proposal is consistent with the Administration’s commitment to transparency in Government.
Indeed, in order to promote greater transparency throughout government, the Administration has identified information management as a high-priority occupation.

We believe that establishing a new information management occupational series that brings together FOIA, Privacy Act, and Records Management positions would improve the recruitment, selection, and development of this critical workforce; elevate the importance of these functions within each agency’ and advance professionalization of the field.

We are working aggressively with OPM to ensure that the roles and responsibilities of Federal records officers are accurately defined and fully represented in the new proposed occupational series.

I’ll close with a quotation from a guy who cared passionately about records and hired Robert Connor, our first Archivist—Franklin Roosevelt.  In dedicating the FDR Library in Hyde Park, he said:

To bring together the records of the past and to house them in buildings where they will be preserved for the use of men and women in the future, a Nation must believe in three things. It must believe in the past. It must believe in the future. It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its own people so to learn from the past that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future.

We at the National Archives look forward to working with ARMA members to keep learning from the past so we can create a great future for the people and organizations we serve.

About the National Archives >

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

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