About the National Archives

Prepared remarks of Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero at the annual conference of the National Federation of Advanced Information Services (NFAIS) in Philadelphia.

March 1, 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?

The Archivist was introduced by Don Hagen, Associate Director of the Office of Product Management and Acquisition, National Technical Information Service.

Thank you, Don.

The day after his inauguration, President Obama addressed his staff in the Executive Office Building saying “…Our commitment to openness means more than simply informing the American people about how decisions are made.

It means recognizing that Government does not have all the answers, and that public officials need to draw on what citizens know. And that’s why, as of today, I’m directing members of my administration to find new ways of tapping the knowledge and expertise of ordinary Americans – scientists and civic leaders, educators, entrepreneurs – because the way to solve the problem of our time is – the way to solve the problems of our time as one nation, is by involving the American people in shaping the policies that affect their lives…”

And on December 8, 2009, the Obama administration issued the Open Government Directive, with the goal of creating a culture of transparency, participation, and collaboration in and among Federal agencies that will transform the relationship between Government and its citizens.

The complexities of meeting these challenges were addressed in December 2010 when the President’s Council of Advisors in Science and Technology submitted its report––Designing a Digital Future––to the President.

It predicts that digital democracy can transform our society over the next several decades. And it lays out crosscutting themes of what must be done if we are to have a successful transformation:

  • “Every agency needs to have a ‘big data’ strategy.” Data volumes are growing exponentially and automated analysis techniques like data mining and machine learning drive the transformation of data into knowledge and knowledge into action.

  • Federal agencies must engineer large software systems to ensure they are secure and trustworthy.

  • Privacy is a critical issue on all society applications of networking and information technology and we need a practice science of privacy protection to provide us with the tools we can use to reconcile privacy with progress.

  • Interoperable interfaces which would be open and not subject to paying fees for use and subject to a public and transparent process to establish and revise the standards that define the interfaces.

  • Agencies must be prepared for various forms of threats to the supply, quality, and security of networking and information technology.

I was delighted that the National Archives participated in the crafting of this report and to see both the recognition of the importance of the work we do at the Archives toward achieving these goals and the opportunities it affords our nascent research program.

At the Archives, we have embraced the President’s Open Government Initiative. It was easy to do so, for the principles of open government are embedded in our basic mission.

We believe that citizens have the right to see, examine, and learn from the records that document their rights and entitlements, the actions of their government officials and the history of their nation.

We have been a key player in digital democracy as a result of our involvement in the Networking and Information Technology Research and Development program and with the Open Government Initiative.

Essential to achieving the goals of Open Government are advances in networking and information technology.

They will allow better access to Federal records, provide more efficient and accessible government services, and enable government to learn from and communicate with the public more effectively.

In turn, these advances will allow citizens to make effective use of government data through tools that support access, analysis, and visualization for non‐experts. Archivists, historians, journalists, and the public will have better and more convenient access to Federal records, including information previously available only in paper form.

Also as similarly observed in the Designing a Digital Future report, achieving the aspirations assigned to digital democracy requires much more than simply deploying technology.

Success in the future depends on judicious use of technology, on management and consensus building, and on building a culture of continual innovation inside and outside government.

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One of the hallmarks of our Open Government plan is an emphasis on providing access to as many records as we can.

To that end, our Office of Government Information Services helps mediate disputes between individuals requesting records under the Freedom of Information Act and the agency that has the records.

Our National Declassification Center is working to streamline the declassification process throughout government, where there are today some 2,000 different security classification guides at work. They are also processing a backlog of 400 million pages awaiting declassification and release to the public by December 31, 2013.

Our Information Security Oversight Office, which oversees the classification programs of government and industry, is leading the effort to reform the system for managing “sensitive but unclassified” or “controlled unclassified information.”

Our Office of the Federal Register, which publishes the government’s daily newspaper, launched a web version last year that allows more participation by the public and puts information in the public’s hands more quickly.

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In the past two years, our digital universe has exploded, and trying to keep up with and respond to emerging technologies is no easy task.

We are moving quickly to prepare our agency for the future. We will ensure that the records we hold for Americans are easily accessible on the latest platforms with the most up-to-date equipment.

We have redesigned and overhauled our main Archives web site, and we implemented a new tool to make the site easier to search, navigate and explore.

Our social media activities are expanding every day. You can follow our tweets, visit us at our blogs, on our Facebook pages, and at our YouTube site or other popular platforms.

We’ve given ourselves a robust social media agenda as we look for the most efficient and most effective ways to reach our customers and connect them with the records they need. These are records that are important for all of us, for they hold the story of America—our story.

One of our activities was to make available data sets from the National Archives on Data.gov. The purpose of Data.gov is to increase public access to high value, machine readable datasets generated by the Executive Branch of the Federal Government.

Created by Vivek Kundra, the Chief Information Officer of the U.S. Federal government, the site will "become a repository for all the information the government collects," publishing data that is not private, or restricted by national security reasons.

The site contains data on a diverse range of subjects, such as FBI crime reports, airline on-time performance, how funds for veterans are spent, the Federal student loan program, and Medicare and Medicaid.

The National Archives has already contributed over 29 data sets of records to this website, including the Federal Register, the official daily publication for rules, proposed rules, and notices of Federal agencies and organizations, as well as executive orders and other presidential documents.

The Code of Federal Regulations is the codification of the general and permanent rules published in the Federal Register by the executive departments and agencies of the Federal Government. It is divided into 50 titles that represent broad areas subject to Federal regulation.

Both of these are available in xml format.

And the Archival Research Catalog data set provides archival descriptions of the permanent holdings of the federal government in the custody of the National Archives. These archival descriptions include information on traditional paper holdings, logical data records (electronic records), and artifacts. ARC alone has over 5 million records, and we are planning to add more this year as per the Open Gov plan.

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And these are challenges we face every day in many ways at 44 locations around the country––at regional records facilities, Presidential libraries, the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis and our buildings in Washington and College Park, Maryland.

In them, we keep some 10 billion pages of textual documents; 7.2 million maps, charts, and architectural drawings; more than 41 million photographs; billions of machine-readable data sets; miles of film and videotapes.

All this – and some 100 terabytes of electronic records: a group of records that is growing rapidly this year.

But we know we’re not alone. The challenges of modern-day recordkeeping are being faced across government by Federal departments and agencies, large and small.

And as the nation’s recordkeeper, they are our challenges, too.

We have accepted those challenges. We have embraced the mission of finding ways to manage and preserve a myriad of electronic records in the digital future. And we have expanded our mission to digitize paper records that are centuries old to preserve our non-digital past.

We will be heading toward our digital future in an “open government” environment—heeding President Obama’s call for more participation, collaboration, and transparency between government and citizens and among Federal agencies.

Our web site provides visitors access to large portions of our holdings, but we are not waiting for our customers to come to us. With our social media efforts, we are reaching out to them. And we are changing the way people interact with the National Archives.

In 2009, we launched our YouTube page and posted 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 nine months, our films were viewed more than 100,000 times. As of today (March 1), we project thatour videos will have been viewedmore than a half-million times.

Our YouTube channel is part of a suite of social media projects launched at the National Archives spanning the blogosphere, wikis, Twitter, Flickr, Foursquare, and Facebook. Customers continue to be informed on a variety of subjects by our eight blogs, one of which is my own.

Since April 2010, I’ve posted comments on the records I’ve seen at the Archives, the latest developments on implementing our Open Government initiative as well as records management and transformation. My last posting centered on the visit to the Archives by the San Jose Sharks of the National Hockey League – As professional athletes go, they had plenty of interest in our records — especially the declassified 1930’s contingency plan to invade Canada!

Last month, we launched the “Document of the Day” app, which allows users to view NARA records on their iPad, iPhone or Android device.

A year ago we had two Facebook pages. Now we have more than 20. Our primary Facebook page has more than 12,000 fans from 17 countries, and adds almost a hundred fans a week. Since our first tweet in 2009, we’ve expanded across the Twittersphere with more than 10,000 followers across16 Twitter feeds.

One of my favorite twitter moments occurred late last June where the online magazine, Slate, joined forces with Twitter to host a contest to reduce the Declaration of Independence to a single Tweet. That meant reducing its 8,000 or so characters to only 124.

Here are some of my favorite entries:

"Don’t tax me bro."
"It’s the taxes, stupid."
“You are not the boss of U.S.”
And my favorite: "We are updating to USA 1.0. All taxes, tea, soldiers previously compatible with England 2.0 will not work with

On my twitter account and Facebook page, I have shared my thoughts on issues of open government and Archives events I’ve attended like the recent reopening of the Reagan Presidential Library museum. My favorite was tweeting from the stage in Oslo, Norway, where I was on a panel about Open Government with my peers from Canada, the United Kingdom, Russia, Japan, and China.

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 across all mobile platforms. And Prologue was the first Federal publication to appear on the digital bookshelves of Zinio.com, Scribd, and Barnes & Noble.

Not bad for a small agency with only 3,000 employees.

As a result of all this, the National Archives is becoming a leader in government in the use of social media, and we hope this activity will bring more citizens to the Archives by way of the Internet.
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.

We believe these new social media tools will help us take the National Archives to more people, and let them know that we have records that may be of use to them now or in the future.

But this new digital world–– from massive web sites to tweets – presents new challenges for the National Archives and the Federal Government.

These challenges involve records management. What is a record? Is a tweet a record? How about a Facebook comment? Every blog? Everything on a web site?

NARA has long recognized that content created by Federal agencies and placed on their web sites is, in many cases, a Federal record and must be managed as such.

As a result, we have been active in providing records management guidance to Federal agencies as technological advances allow the creation of new types of records.

In January 2005, we issued comprehensive guidance to Federal agencies on managing their web records. We discussed the ways in which agencies use their web sites, the basic laws that govern them, the types of records typically accumulated on agency web sites, and how to ensure trustworthy web records.

But we recognized the Internet was evolving from a static repository of documents into an environment of collaboration and communication across geographic and institutional boundaries.

NARA issued additional guidance in 2006 on the implications that evolution had for records management. Since then we have continued to work with Federal agencies to understand their use of the web and identify records management concerns.

We built on that work and recently issued A Report on Federal Web 2.0 Use and Record Value.

We now understand that the way agencies use the web has changed. The ongoing, collaborative, and interactive nature of Web 2.0 platforms require agencies to determine if these changes impact previous records management determinations.

For instance, agencies should consider if user-generated content, such as comments left on an agency blog, need to be documented as part of their records. Agencies may also need to determine if updates to online content require additional strategies to capture the records on a more frequent basis. These determinations will impact how agencies properly manage records of their Web 2.0 interactions.

To assist Federal agencies in making those determinations, we issued a Bulletin on Managing Records in Web 2.0/Social Media Platforms. This Bulletin provides specific guidance and information to agencies about these platforms and how their use of them may affect existing records management procedures.

The first step for an agency is to determine if the content on the platform meets the definition of a Federal record.

These questions are intended to help agencies make that determination:

* Is the information unique and not available anywhere else?

* Does it contain evidence of the agency’s policies, business, or mission?

* Is this tool being used in relation to the agency’s work?

* Is use of the tool authorized by the agency?

* Is there a business need for the information?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then the content is likely to be a Federal record.

And if it is, that content must be appropriately managed, including the possibility that at some point it will be transferred to the custody of the National Archives as a permanent record.

For example, we have already made the determination that the DipNote Blog, the Department of State’s official blog, is worthy of permanent retention. Later this year, the records management staff at the State Department will transfer the archived postings from 2007–2009 and the posts from 2010 to our custody.

Such blog entries include one made by the U.S Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies in Rome on December 8, 2009. While visiting stricken areas near the city of Harar, Ethiopia, Ambassador Cousins wrote “…Camels seemed to follow us this morning as we rode west on the highway…Now and then they would cross the road and distract us from our breath-taking drive through the rocky, mountainous terrain…we turned onto unpaved, gravel roads and ventured deep into an area where the sorghum crop has been decimated by drought. Stalks holding this staple grain were dried stiff as the rains have failed again in this area. With this bleak backdrop, I visited a few sites that showed me how U.S. food assistance leverages other resources in support of an Ethiopian Government-led safety net program…U.S. food nourishes young minds and bodies as funds from other donor countries and non-governmental organizations enlarge the safety net to keep the most vulnerable from selling off all of their assets and becoming destitute as well as food insecure….U.S. food provides the energy the community needs to build schools, health clinics, and farmer training centers…”

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In addition to our Web 2.0 guidance, we issued a Bulletin on Guidance on Managing Records in Cloud Computing Environments. This guidance informed agencies that there are records management implications when they start to explore and develop solutions that rely on the architecture of cloud computing.

Today, the Federal Government is adopting cloud computing platforms and implementing social media and other technologies. This will make government work faster, more collaboratively, and more efficiently—all of them pillars of open government.

But the records management challenges grow as well. And there is cause for concern. Across government today, agencies are not doing an effective enough job managing records and other information assets.

Last year, we required all Federal agencies to perform a self-assessment of their records management programs. The goal was to gather data to determine how effective agencies are in meeting the statutory and regulatory requirements for records management.

Responses came from 270 cabinet-level departments and their components, as well as independent agencies. The results were not encouraging. We found that 85 percent of all the agencies are at either a high or moderate risk of improper destruction of records or compromising the integrity, authenticity, and reliability of their records.

These findings indicate that Federal agencies are falling short in carrying out their records management responsibilities, particularly with electronic records.

We participated in the CIO Boot Camp for new Chief Information Officers by providing a briefing on electronic records management issues.

We have for some time emphasized how important it is for agency Chief Information Officers and records managers to work together when designing records management solutions for electronic records.

It has already borne fruit. Recently, we hosted the first joint meeting between the Chief Information Officers Council and the Federal Records Management Council to encourage those critical partnerships in each department and agency.

We have increasedFederal agency adoption of ERA through partnering with bothCIOs andRecords Officers across the government. We are working together to make agency CIOs and Records Officers aware of this system and the benefits it provides to agencies and the American people in managing preserving, and making available the permanently valuable records of our government.

We are also exploring between these groups how to address the particular records management and archivalchallenges surroundingemailand other electronic messaging technologies across the government. We believe there are synergiesand implementation successesto be realized when these twogroups work together on common issues and share experiences.

Later this fiscal year we will bring together again the Federal CIOs and the Federal records officers to outline the progress that we've made with ERA user adoption and how toexplore how to pursueemail management solutions that can be implemented inquickly consistent with archival and records management requirements, andhopefully at lower cost, given all of our challenging budget environments.

Networking and information technology will continue to provide an important forum for collaboration and discussion of ways to enable our digital democracy by managing the records.

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Another role we will play in the digital democracy will be making sure the non-digital past is not left behind by digitizing as many of our traditional paper records as we can and as expeditiously as possible.

To get this job done, NARA has ongoing external digitization partnerships with three organizations that have an interest in genealogical records. Family Search, Ancestry.com, and Footnote have scanned many of our most requested records.

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.

As part of the deal, partners give NARA digital files of the images and the required descriptive information. The descriptive information may be incorporated into our search tool immediately, while the images are ours to use after five years.

Some of our digitizing work is also done in-house. 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 release––in digital format only––in April 2012. We must digitize the census records in-house because of legal restrictions on its 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.
As with every census, the 1940 census reflects the United States in the preceding decade. Among the questions that illustrate the effectsof the Great Depression, is one that asks "In what place did this person live on April 1, 1935." For the first time, using the Federal population census, researchers can learn where someone lived in the middle of the decade.

Also for the first time, the census will not be released on microfilm, but digitally. This will make it immediately available to people throughout the country. At its release, the census will be indexed to the enumeration district level, but not name indexed.

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As The President indicated in his State of the Union speech, he’s on board with the digital future, saying that he wants to extend wireless coverage to 98 percent of all Americans in the next five years.

He added: “It’s about connecting every part of America to the digital age.”
Internally, we are reorganizing and transforming our agency to be better able to provide important services to our customers and keep our holdings safe and secure.

This transformation process is being done by the staff itself. Personnel at all grades and from all our locations have met and shared ideas on how to make the National Archives work better for our citizens.

We are implementing 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.
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.

I know the result will allow us to better provide access to records in a more open government.
I am excited about our changes, for I see them as important ways the Federal Government can continue to ensure the basic rights of citizens in our democracy

We provide access every day to the records that guarantee citizen rights, hold the government accountable, and document the nation’s history. The most famous of these are the Charters of Freedom—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

They are just around the corner from my office in the National Archives. And every day, I am reminded of the dreams and ideals they represent for all of us in this great democracy.

Thank you.

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The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
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