About the National Archives

Prepared remarks of Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero at the 35th anniversary observance of the Greater Baltimore Chapter of the Association for Records Managers and Administrators.

May 2, 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 Chad Doram, president of the chapter.

Good afternoon, and thank you for the kind introduction, Chad. I’m pleased to be here to help celebrate your 35th anniversary. My congratulations to you on reaching that milestone.

I am pleased to speak about the National Archives and records management.  And I look forward to seeing many of you and your colleagues from around the country at your international conference in Washington later this year.

I want to talk to you today about what we’re doing in records management at the Archives, but first let me describe what’s going on within the agency now. It is a transformation that will strengthen our ability to be a leader in open government, social media, electronic records management, and organizational effectiveness.

This change has included great deal of staff input. Committees and working groups of employees from all our locations and all grades are working out the details.

This transformation is designed to make it easier for customers to get what they want from the Archives and easier for us to provide it to them.

The plan outlines a major reorganization of NARA—one that reduces redundancies, streamlines decision-making, and lays the foundation for a very different way of doing business.  It will make it easier for our staff to provide better services to our customers.

The plan reflected what I felt was a need to make sure our organizational structure reflected our goal of making six key transformations over the next five years.
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 people, 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.

We now have a Transformation Launch Team at work preparing an implementation plan for the reorganization. But a reorganized agency will not in itself bring about change.
That change will come from our staff—the best and the brightest there are, equipped with the proper tools for success in an environment where success is possible.
 
Putting customers at the center of everything we do, a transformed NARA will enable us to build an open, inclusive work environment. This will be an environment that encourages staff learning and creativity, invests in innovation, and engages all our staff in continuously improving services.

And it will happen not just in our Washington-area locations, but at all our 44 locations around the country, including our 14 regional archives and our 13 Presidential libraries. Customers in San Bruno, California, and West Branch, Iowa, are just as important to us as those who come to us in downtown Washington, DC or in College Park, Maryland.
 

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Preserving the nation’s records so they are easily accessible forever is our prime mission, and two things are essential to that mission.

One is managing the records well, beginning with their creation. The other is preserving them so they can be accessed by any type of hardware or software, as we are doing with our Electronic Records Archives.

We’ve been managing the government’s records since the Archives was created in 1934. But the past year has seen major activity in records management.

But let me give you some context regarding the challenges we faces in records management.  Earlier this year we released the results of our 2010 Records Management Self-Assessment.  The goal of the annual self-assessment is to determine whether Federal agencies are compliant with statutory and regulatory records management requirements.  Of the 270 agencies that received the self-assessment, 251, or 93 percent, responded. 

These responses indicate that 95 percent of those Federal agencies are at moderate to high risk of compromising the integrity, authenticity, and reliability of their records.  They risk improper management and disposition of records or, in some cases, they are saving their records but not taking the necessary steps to ensure that they can be retrieved, read, or interpreted.

We believe that the self-assessment serves as a baseline for evaluating records management within the Federal Government and provides a roadmap for its future.  Agencies can use self-assessment data to chart their own programs.  We will use the survey results in agency inspections.  Taken together, data gleaned from the surveys and inspections will allow us to work along with the Federal records management community to continue to assess the effectiveness of current practices and to develop strategies for improving the compliance programs in Federal agencies.

So what are some examples of that work?

Last summer, we issued the document, A Report on Federal Web 2.0 Use and Record Value. During the writing and research of this report, we received significant responses from agencies that were both interested and willing to participate.

This broad participation allowed us to make recommendations for future actions and to identify areas for further research. These recommendations included:

Clarifying the definition of a Federal record…
 
Addressing transfer requirements for permanent web 2.0 records…

Mitigating public expectations of content longevity…

And integrating records management into agency social media policy.

After this report was released, we issued a NARA Bulletin called Guidance on Managing Records in Web 2.0 and Social Media Platforms. This bulletin reminds Federal agencies of their records management responsibilities. That is especially important as we use social media more and more to conduct government business and to interact with the public.

However, where and how an agency creates, uses, or stores information does not affect how agencies identify Federal records.

The principles for analyzing, scheduling, and managing records are based on content and are independent of the medium.

So we come to the question: What is a record?

The first step for an agency is to determine whether the content on the platform meets the definition of a Federal record. If it does, that content must be appropriately managed. In doing so, agencies have to keep in mind that at some point, it may be transferred to the custody of the National Archives as a permanent record.

Agencies should decide if the interactive nature of content creation—such as comments left on an agency blog—need to be documented as part of the record.

They may also need to determine what to do about frequent updates of the content.

These decisions will impact how agencies properly manage and schedule the records of their Web 2.0 interactions.

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

During the drafting of the bulletin on managing federal records on 2.0 platforms, we met with the Federal Web Manager’s Council. We shared both the study and bulletin and began communications relating to records management of social media.  They provided input to refine the bulletin and recognized the value of continuing discussions between our two groups.

We recently held a well-attended session at the 2011 Government Web and New Media Conference on this topic and continue to gather good feedback from the web manager’s council.

In November, NARA co-hosted with the Office of Management and Budget a workshop for Records Management for Multi-Agency Collaborations.  It was well attended with more than 30 Federal agencies represented.

As follow up to the OMB workshop, a Federal Max Community has been established on OMB’s Wiki platform for agencies wishing to collaborate on records management issues.  Agencies can post samples, thoughts, and questions for the group as well as announce related events.

In January, a subgroup was established within the Federal Records Council to address social media records management issues affecting federal agencies and departments.

This subgroup is being led by the records management staff at the Department of the Navy and includes representatives from 5 additional agencies—the Environmental Protection Agency, the Export-Import Bank and the Departments of State, Justice and Education. They are working on a white paper and other recommendations they will deliver to the full FRC later this year.

We are also working on scheduling a joint meeting between the Federal Records Council and the Federal Web Managers Council to continue the discussion about the importance of records management and build these critical partnerships.

Last month saw the release of the results of a NARA-sponsored study by the American Council for Technology/Industry Advisory Council. The purpose of this study was to explore government retention policies for social media and to capture best practices to share with ACT-IAC members, both in government and in industry.

The study includes information on how agencies are starting to integrate records management into their internal social media policies. This underscores our belief that it’s essential that record managers work closely with social media staff and IT staff within agencies and departments.

All of these activities demonstrate the partnerships we are building across the wide spectrum of our stakeholders. These groups, including ARMA, care about records management and we are reaching out to them in many different ways for their help, suggestions, and ideas.

Managing and retaining important records in the digital era is where our Electronic Records Archives, or ERA, comes in.

This year marks an important transition for the ERA.

The developmental phase of ERA ends.

Starting this fall, ERA will be in a purely operational mode. This has been the first year of widespread Federal agency use of ERA to conduct records management business and to arrange for accession of permanent electronic records. We will continue to expand the number of agency users until all federal agencies and departments are using ERA by December 2012.

NARA started the ERA project to allow us to accession, preserve, and search the increasing volumes of electronic records that we knew were coming. 

Because of the successful deployment of the earlier parts of the system, we are now actively managing around 100 terabytes of permanently valuable Federal, Presidential, and Congressional records. That would have been nearly impossible for us to do with our legacy systems. 

At the moment, most of the electronic records in ERA are Presidential records from the George W. Bush White House.  This important collection includes more than 200 million e-mail messages and more than 3 million digital photographs, as well as more than 30 million additional electronic records in other formats. 

This year, as we bring more Federal agency users on board, we expect to see a significant increase in the number of Federal records in ERA.  For example, we expect to receive and preserve the first transfers of records of U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan this year. 

We are also receiving the electronic records of the 2010 Census, a perfect example of our need for ERA.  Since Census records cannot be made available to the public for 72 years, ERA must preserve them in a way that ensures that NARA can deliver authentic records in an accessible format to family historians and other researchers in 2082.

The ERA Program is on schedule to meet our remaining development goals by the end of this coming September.  The remaining development work will refine our ability to support Federal agency records management. It will add the capability to securely protect records classified or restricted for national security reasons.

It will also support our ability to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests on the George W. Bush records by allowing us to create redacted versions of partially releasable records.  Development also includes the infrastructure to support format migrations and further refinements of our Online Public Access system, which I will talk about in a moment.

All told, the total costs of the ERA program through the end of this year are expected be around $463 million. And this investment has allowed NARA to take a leap forward and become an archives for the 21st century.

It was a leap that was necessary. Many valuable records of the U.S. government would be at risk today without ERA. Without the ERA, NARA would have been inundated with today’s volume of electronic records.

And we would have been unable to search for records within our collections and unable to make these records available to the public online.

Many records that guarantee citizen rights, document actions by the government and tell the nation’s story could have been lost.

Now, because of ERA, we are confident that we can accession and preserve them.

Now, ERA is no longer just an idea, but a reality.

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Once records are managed well by their originating agency and accessioned by the Archives, they will be available for use by the public.

We have created a new tool for allowing the public to use these records easily and expeditiously.
Online Public Access is a significant first step in providing a single search engine for all of our online holdings. It gives the public a simpler way to search and view the Government’s permanent records.
Instead of requiring users to go to several places on our web site to look for information, they will now have one-stop service. All they have to do is type the search term in one box and retrieve images and information from multiple locations. That includes our vast holdings nationwide, our web site, and our various social media platforms. 

This tool will integrate searches across several Archives.gov resources and will display the results in a more user-friendly presentation.

We’re excited to offer the public a simpler way to search and view the permanent records of the Federal Government.

At the same time, we are asking the public to help shape the development of Online Public Access by letting us know how it works for them. We want to know how people actually use the portal so we can make further refinements and increase its capability over time.

Public input is critical to the success of our efforts. I am confident that National Archives users and staff, working together, will help us provide a better experience and easier access to all our users.

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Before I close, I also want to report to you about the great progress the National Declassification Center is making on processing a backlog of some 400 million pages of classified documents.
In late 2009, at the direction of the President, I established the National Declassification Center within NARA.

Its job is to review and declassify a backlog of more than 400 million pages of classified records and put as many on our open shelves as quickly as possible. This is to be done by December 31, 2013, while not creating another backlog.

The Center’s first job was to establish an organization and processes to do the job properly by the deadline. That has been done. The work is well underway, and so far, the news from the Center is good.

As of April 15, 101.7 million of the 400 million pages have passed the quality review process, the crucial first stage of the review process.

And of the 14 million pages that have been fullyreviewed, 12.7 millionwere declassified and put on open access to researchers.  That’s a 91 percent release rate!

When the Central Intelligence Agency recently released its oldest classified documents—revealing some secrets of successful spying—it provided a bit of welcome good press for the fabled spy agency.

But it was also a victory for the National Archives, which for years had been gently nudging the CIA to release the World War I-era documents.

On April 18, the six documents in question were made public. They revealed the recipes for invisible ink, which spies used to write messages to one another or to headquarters, as well as the name of the chemical that would make the messages visible.

The chemicals and dosages for making invisible ink and reading the invisible writing, as well as opening sealed envelopes, is laid out, some of it in handwriting, in six documents.

But the release of the invisible ink records involved some tough behind-the-scenes work by NARA officials to free these espionage documents from the CIA vault.

Sheryl Shenberger, director of our National Declassification Center and a former CIA officer, and Jay Bosanko, then director of our Information Security Oversight Office met with CIA information management officers several times to try to prod them to release the documents. They knew the job would be tough, and it was. After all, the CIA had been fighting Freedom of Information Act requests for them for years.

Shenberger and Bosanko pointed out that the records were older than the CIA itself and the CIA’s predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services.  They also noted that the information in these old documents was available in the public domain in some form, suggesting the capability was already out on the Internet. And they even did some Internet research to support their case.

Still, the CIA wouldn’t budge, sticking with its authority to withhold sensitive information. But NARA kept pressing its case.

Finally, this spring, the CIA determined the timing was right. In its statement, the agency came around to the argument that had been made for their release—that modern advances in making invisible ink and methods to detect it made it unnecessary to withhold the documents any further.

While respecting CIA’s authority to withhold sensitive information, NARA works with the CIA to encourage an objective, researched investigation into the value and potential historical impact of the agency’s classified material.

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And on that high note, I want to thank you for inviting me to speak to you today, and congratulations again on your 35th anniversary.

Now I’d be happy to take questions from the audience.

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