About the National Archives

Remarks of Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero at the North Carolina State Historical Records Advisory Board conference, "From Theory to Practice: Accessing and Preserving Electronic Records and Digital Materials"

November 4, 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.

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What's an Archivist?

The Archivist was introduced by Jeff Crow, deputy secretary of archives and history, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources.

Thanks, Jeff, for that kind introduction. It is nice to be back in North Carolina among friends and colleagues.

A fellow North Carolinian, Robert Connor, the nation’s very first Archivist, reflected on his early days in Washington when 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.

We are the Nation’s record keeper. Created during the Franklin Roosevelt Administration and launched by Robert D.W. Connor, the first Archivist of the United States. Connor was a historian at Chapel Hill and has become a mentor in a sense.

For the National Archives, 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.

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At the Archives, this ideal is embedded in our mission. The work we do every day 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.”

This past September, 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!

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 an update on the Electronic Records Archives, or ERA. We rely on ERA every day to perform a key part of our basic mission. Without ERA, the National Archives would have been hard pressed to store and search the volume of electronic records received in the last four years.

NARA received the first functional part of the ERA system for Federal records in 2008. It included 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.

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ERA consists of several important subsystems, known as “instances,” that were designed to meet the particular requirements of records governed by different laws. The Federal Records (“Base”) instance now stores more than 16 terabytes of records from Federal agencies. It provides a web-based means for Federal agencies to schedule and transfer records to NARA, a repository for electronic records, and important preservation functions with a framework for managing migration from obsolete formats to accessible ones and a standards-based approach to preservation metadata using the PREMIS data dictionary.

The Executive Office of the President (EOP) instance stores 82.3 terabytes of Presidential records. NARA staff has done approximately 100,000 searchers in EOP in response to special access requests, specifically requests from the incumbent or former President, Congress, or the Courts. As a result of these requests, NARA has produced 16,515 pages, 3,204 photographs, three audio recordings, 139 videos, and 6,924 emails in electronic format in the last year.

The Executive Office of the President instance also enables archivists to review records for public release under FOIA, including the ability to securely redact restricted content and to maintain releasability decisions with archival originals and any public use version created. With these functions, the system will be ready to support public access requests starting in 2014 when President George W. Bush’s presidential records become subject to FOIA.
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 331 Terabytes of 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.

On September 30, we reached a major milestone in regards to this project. We concluded the initial development phase of ERA with Lockheed Martin, 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 Operations and Maintenance 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 1 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 per cent 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, and an appealing and useful display of textual documents, video, images, and/or traditional databases, and digitized paper records.

The OPA System pulls together information from many sources at NARA to provide a one-stop search and access mechanism for users. The Congressional Records Instance holds almost 17 terabytes, and Classified and Census instances are preparing for first use.

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.

* * * * *

Although ERA is providing many sophisticated new capabilities for electronic records, it does not yet do everything described in the original vision. By the conclusion of development in 2011, ERA had met 68 per cent of the original requirements. ERA provides a foundation for electronic records services for the Federal government, but there are five areas the National Archives plans to refine over time as resources allow. We will:

Improve the public’s ability to access electronic records through the Online Public Access (OPA) system

Make record submission processes more streamlined, scalable, reliable and flexible…

Improve advanced search tools for NARA staff…

Improve processes for capturing, storing, and updating metadata in ERA and…

Improve ERA architecture to promote more scalable, evolvable, and cost-effective storage and records management services.

Let me provide a glimpse of the future for all of us. This past January, in his State of the Union Address, President Obama described the digital world in which we will be living—in the very near future:

“Within the next five years,” he said, “we’ll make it possible for businesses to deploy the next generation of high-speed wireless coverage to 98 percent of all Americans. This isn’t just about faster Internet or fewer dropped calls.

“It’s about connecting every part of America to the digital age. It’s about a rural community in Iowa or Alabama where farmers and small business owners will be able to sell their products all over the world.
It’s about a firefighter who can download the design of a burning building onto a handheld devise; a student who can take classes with a digital textbook; or a patient who can have face-to-face video chats with her doctor.”

That vision comes from the December 2010 report of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology entitled “Designing a Digital Future”—an aggressive agenda which acknowledges that:

“Information technology is transforming government operations and opening new communication channels between government and citizens. These new channels—providing increased and more convenient access to government records—open up exciting possibilities for sharing information and delivering services.”

I encourage each of you to take a look at this report and start thinking about how you can work with your Government to create that digital future.

* * ** *

One last breakthrough to report on.

When I arrived in Washington two years ago I discovered that in the wonderful world of Federal job descriptions there is no such thing as a records manager. They are formally classified in a variety of positions that encompass a wide range of duties and grades—often not the prime responsibility for that individual.

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 and I believe that establishing a new information management series will 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.


I’ll close with a quotation from a guy who cared passionately about records and —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 you to keep learning from the past so we can create a great future for the people and organizations we serve.

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