About the National Archives

Prepared remarks of Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero at the annual conference of the National Genealogical Society in Charleston, South Carolina.

May 11, 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?

“Transformation of NARA”

Thank you for inviting me here today to talk about genealogy at the National Archives and the transformation that our agency has underway.

As you well know, genealogy is a subject of great importance to us. 

Because of that, we value our ongoing relationship with this organization highly, and we are proud of the things we have accomplished together in the genealogy community.

Every year, the search for family histories brings thousands of visitors to our facilities around the country and to our web site on the Internet.

We are Stop Number One for genealogy researchers.
 
Our 7th annual Genealogy Fair last month brought over 5,000 people to our downtown Washington building. That’s twice the number who attended last year, and evidence of the continued strong interest in genealogy research. 

In addition, we produce reference guides for genealogists, workshops at our locations nationwide, and an in-depth Genealogy Notes feature in every issue of our magazine, Prologue.

We are involved in the appraisal of records of interest to genealogists,
even as we train a new generation of genealogy specialists.

Our work in genealogy is not limited to our buildings in downtown Washington and in College Park, Maryland.  Our regional archives in places like Atlanta, Boston, New York, and San Francisco, to name a few, are rich in genealogical information.

For genealogists, the volume and the vastness of records at the National Archives are staggering. We have the files on every decennial census back to 1790, military service and pensions, Freedman’s Bureau activities, immigration and naturalization lists, federal court cases, public land transactions——and so much more.

And inside the boxes of records from Federal agencies are correspondence and other documents that show the interaction between individuals and their government.

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What we’re doing now at the Archives is building on what we already do in genealogy to better serve our public.

But the way we serve our customers is changing, as our customers have more tools to do their work.

In the past, researchers spent long hours looking at page after page and taking hand-written notes. Then microfilm and photocopying arrived to help them.

Now, researchers come armed with scanners, digital cameras, and other electronic devices to copy traditional paper records, and we have installed WiFi in our Washington and College Park buildings to help them do their work.

Many of the documents researchers need today are available on the Internet. Our online presence grows richer every day, giving genealogists more and more material. I’ll tell you more about that later.

Our web site has been redesigned and made easier to use.  It includes a genealogy portal. It offers tutorials for those starting out in genealogy research as well as links to web sites that contain resources for professionals and amateurs alike.

But we’re not waiting for people to come to our web site.
 
We’re reaching out to them by way of social media. As I’ve said many times, we plan to be a leader in government in the use of social media.

We have eleven blogs, one of which is mine. We have 29 Facebook pages for Presidential libraries and regional archives as well as individual programs and offices within the Archives. We have a YouTube site that draws on our vast collection of film and videotape of events throughout the 20th century. 

And you’ll find us on Flickr, where we are geo-tagging our photos when possible, and on Twitter and Foursquare.

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, as well as on Scribd and Zinio.

The government’s daily newspaper, The Federal Register, is now on the Internet as an interactive feature for our citizens who want to follow the government and how laws are made and administered.
 
All these platforms are infused with information that potentially could be of use in genealogy research, and now we have a tool to search them all.
 
We call it Online Public Access, or OPA.  We launched OPA late last year.  It provides a public portal for access to our digitized records and information about our records.  It’s a centralized way of searching all the Archives’ resources at once. You could call it a Google for the Archives.

And coming this summer, users will be able to tag descriptions in OPA.
With our limited resources, we cannot possibly provide all the names in our records. We hope that users will add more names to provide a richer resource for the public.

We have put many sets of raw data on the web site Data.gov for researchers to use and adapt for their own purposes. 

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

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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 in understanding and describing what we have.

Often, researchers and authors 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.

Last year, I met Jonathan Webb Deiss, a researcher at the Archives. His knowledge and enthusiasm for discovering treasures makes him a model of what we are calling the Citizen Archivist.  A knowledgeable and skilled researcher, Jonathan came across a previously unpublicized Revolutionary War soldier’s diary in the Records of the U.S. Senate.

At one point in the diary, the soldier 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 wasn’t the first surprise lurking in the stacks, nor will it be the last.

Last month, I hosted a press event at the National Archives, recognizing the efforts of another researcher.

Kenneth Price, a professor of literature at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, discovered about 3,000 documents from the Department of Justice previously unknown to be in the handwriting of Walt Whitman. They are from the time when he was a clerk in the Attorney General's office immediately following the Civil War.

They are quite an astonishing discovery. Although Whitman is not the official "author" of these documents in most cases, they definitely passed through his mind and his fingertips. They shed light on Whitman's post-war poetry and his cultural criticism in "Democratic Vistas."

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These are just one of many exciting discoveries happening each day in the research rooms of National Archives facilities.  Such findings shape the ever changing nature of American history, and I hope researchers continue to share their wonderful finds with us.

We would like to have you – citizen archivists – get more involved with what we put online.  Now, you can make comments on our blogs but very few do so. 

You could easily tell us and others about how useful they found the records and about other related records.

Our challenge now is to find additional ways for you to add to what we put up while maintaining a clear line between our own analysis and descriptions and unverified material from the public.

While the information that genealogists seek doesn’t change with time, the tools of the trade do and will continue to do so.  More and more, genealogy research will be conducted on the Internet.

And there will be new and newer software and hardware for genealogy research.

But genealogy research depends to a great extent on traditional paper records. That’s why we are doing all we can to digitize as much of our traditional holdings as quickly as possible.

NARA has ongoing external digitization partnerships with organizations that have an interest in genealogical records. Family Search, Ancestry, and Footnote have scanned many of our most popular microfilm publications. Now, they are digitizing records not on microfilm that were only available in a specific NARA facility.

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, pension files, passenger arrival lists, and papers of the Continental Congress.

Some recent additions include case files of Civil War widows’ pension certificates, U.S. colored troops compiled military service records, reports of deaths of American citizens abroad, and consolidated Civil War draft registrations.

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 our Archival Research Catalog immediately, while the images are ours to use after five years.

Also, the Federation of Genealogical Societies has started a project to digitize the War of 1812 pension files. And the first digitized images from this project have just begun to appear online.  These images will be on both the NARA and Footnote web sites. It’s a big project, since there are about 7.2 million images in the 180,000 case files.

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 on April 2, 2012 ——
in digital format only. We are digitizing the census records in-house because of legal restrictions on their being made public prior to the release date.

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.

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Now to transformation.

The National Archives is now undergoing a top-to-bottom transformation.

It involves a reorganization aimed at allowing our staff to meet customer needs more efficiently and more effectively in the years to come. One way to do this is by bringing together offices within the agency that do similar work but not always in concert.

It will also make it easier for our users, such as genealogists and ordinary Americans, to interact with our staff and help us more fully understand the records that have been placed in our care.

NARA has 44 locations, including our Washington area facilities, our St. Louis personnel records center, 13 Presidential libraries, 17 Federal Records Centers and 14 regional archives.

But we have not always acted as one, so changes in the way we do things were necessary. I first went to the staff for their views and ideas on what to do and how to do it. I got several earfuls.

The use of electronic records in government was exploding. At the same time, rapidly-changing technology was allowing people to communicate and interact with each other virtually via Web 2.0. The Archives was way behind in adapting to these new technologies; we needed to catch up.

The Archives staff identified strongly with the our mission, but there was much discontent in the ranks; in fact, last year NARA was rated among the worst places to work in the Federal Government.

We needed to rethink how we do our jobs and how we operated as an agency to be able to exist and thrive in the digital age. Something transformative had to be done.

Our transformation is in concert with President Obama’s Open Government Initiative. It has as its goal the transformation of the relationship between government and the people—and within government itself— through more transparency, participation and collaboration.

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

In early fall, I approved and shared with the entire staff the final plan, and now we’re in the process of implementing it.

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Briefly, here’s what we’re doing.   

The Task Force identified six transformational outcomes that would be the guiding force in developing the organizational structure necessary to address key challenges NARA is facing.

* One NARA: An agency with unified and coordinated services to delivered to customers efficiently and effectively.

* A Customer-Focused Organization: An agency with structures and processes so staff can more effectively meet customer needs.

* Out in Front: An agency that embraces the primacy of electronic information in all its work and positions itself as a leader and innovator in this area.

* An Agency of Leaders: An agency that fosters a culture of leadership, not just as a position, but how each individual works proactively.

* A Great Place to Work: An agency that trusts, empowers, and listens to all staff, the agency’s most vital resource.

* An Open NARA: An agency that opens organizational boundaries to learn from others, inside and outside NARA.

We are reorganizing NARA, but that will not by itself bring about the change in outlook that we need.

That change will come from our staff—the best and the brightest,
equipped with the proper tools, located in the right environment, and motivated by an appreciative audience.

And I want to note here that this reorganization is being done by the staff itself.

Staff at all grades and from all our locations met and shared ideas on how to make the National Archives work better for our citizens.

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So what does this mean for genealogy research at the Archives?

We believe this transformation will result in a more productive, enriching and successful experience at the National Archives for you.  We want you to know that you will have at your disposal the full resources of the National Archives, not just one particular unit.

As the plan is implemented over the next few years, you’ll begin to see positive changes.

Today, you have separate jurisdictions within NARA operating the genealogy teams at our Washington and College Park facilities and at our 14 regional archives. This will change.

Under our reorganization, a new Research Services program is being created.

It will combine archival and preservation-related functions for Federal records now performed by our Office of Records Services for the Washington area with the 14 regional archives around the country.

The result will be a cohesive, collaborative national program, oriented toward public access of Federal records that relies on collaboration of staff teams across geographic and unit-specific boundaries. In other words, headquarters staff and field staff will be working together to meet our customers’ needs.

Within Research Services will be a Research Customer Support unit, which will include a Research Customer Council. The Council will include representatives of our staff and various research customer constituency groups.

The Research Customer Support Unit will be responsible for managing teams from across the country that will focus on specific research customer groups, such as genealogists.

The new organization also creates a new unit focused on developing online content and tools to help customers help themselves. The idea is to better inform customers about what we have and increased their ability to access records without having to go to a NARA facility.

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In closing, I’d like to reiterate the determination of the National Archives and its staff to make genealogy research easier and more efficient for the researcher.

We now have the technology, the organization, and the tools – together with our expert staff –
to make genealogy research at the National Archives a much more rewarding and fruitful experience.

Thank you, and now I’d be happy to take some questions from the audience.

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