About the National Archives

Prepared Remarks of Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero at the Archival Education and Research Institute. Simmons College, Boston.

July 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.

The AOTUS Blog


What's an Archivist?

Thank you. Let me start by saying “congratulations”…congratulations to the Institute of Museum and Library Studies and to the organizers of AERI. You’ve made this event the largest gathering of archival educators in the country in just three short years. It is an honor for me to take part.

It is also quite a pleasure to be back at Simmons. As has been mentioned, I both studied and taught here, so it’s a kind of homecoming. What she didn’t mention is that my Simmons connections go well beyond my time on campus decades ago.

As it turns out, my wife’s grandmother attended here about a century ago, and she used to tell me stories about what it was like going to school when Simmons was popularly known as “Girls Tech.”

We have come a long way, haven’t we?

I was especially pleased when Michèle [Cloonan] was appointed Dean because of her great library bloodlines!  How many of you know the name Seymour Lubetzky?  I once asked of the entire library staff at Duke when I was interviewing there.  Two people raised their hands!

Seymour Lubetzky, a true giant of our field, whose ingenious transformation of cataloging made him a legend, was Michele’s uncle.

When I was at MIT, always looking for ways to improve staff morale,  I proposed doing a series of living tableaux, with staff members posed and costumed to illustrate great moments of library history—a version of Felix Unger’s bubblegum cards themed around Great Moments in Opera.  And I decided to portray Seymour Lubetzky. I still have the face mask I created!  Somewhere!

I had hoped to bring it today, but an intense search of the National Archives and MIT’s holdings found that – alas – for some reason it had not been preserved.

Professor Lubetzky lived almost 105 years, and his legacy lives on in Dean Cloonan and all the people in this room – in those of you who are about to become professional archivists, and those of you who train them.

In thinking about what I wanted to say to this audience, I tried to do a little mental time travel … taking myself back in time to when I was a library science graduate and faculty member student here. I asked myself, what do I wish I knew then that I know now?

I wrestled with that question and decided to talk about three things today.

  • What we do at the National Archives and Research Administration;
  • What the future of NARA, and archives in general, looks like; and finally
  • What that future means in terms of the skills we’re looking for, when the Archives hires students like you here today, or like those you teach in your classrooms.

First, the work of the National Archives.

Thomas Jefferson said, “Information is the currency of democracy.” Simply, put the National Archives and Records Administration is the keeper of one of the most important parts of that currency. We preserve 2 percent to three percent of all records created by the United States government—those that are important for legal or historical reasons.

That may not sound like very much but we now hold approximately 12 billion sheets of paper, 5.3 billion electronic records; 18 million maps, charts, and architectural drawings; 400,000 sound and video records; and 17.6 million still pictures and posters.   550,000 artifacts, and 5.3 billion electronic records.
In our collection you’ll find the most important documents in our history – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. And you’ll also find tweets. More about that in a moment.
These records are in facilities around the country:

  • 14 Regional Archives including one in Boston,
  • 17 Federal Records Centers,
  • 13 Presidential Libraries, including the Kennedy Library in Boston ,
  • The National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, and
  • Our Facilities in the Washington, DC area.

And that collection is growing, especially the electronic records. To give you a sense of the scale: we house 20 million e-mails from the Clinton Administration. And 240 million from the George W. Bush administration.

Our core mission – to preserve key government documents -- remains unchanged from the day the National Archives was created as a Federal agency in 1934.

At the same time, National Archives is very much a living organization, one that evolves to meet new challenges.

When the Archives began, the challenge was just finding the records. Here’s an account of what the first archivist, Robert D. W. Connor, confronted: valuable records … were found in a depository … piled on dust-covered shelves mingled higgledy-piggledy with empty whisky bottles and with rags and other highly inflammable trash. In another Washington depository … the most prominent object which meets the eye as one enters the room is the skull of a cat protruding from under a pile of valuable records.

Twenty years later, the sheer volume of government records seemed to be the biggest challenges.

The then archivist, Wayne Grover, seemed overwhelmed. "It is almost inconceivable,” he said, “that the federal government, in the 22 years from 1930 to 1952, should have created more than seven times as many records as it did during its previous 155 years of history."

I wonder what he would say about the 21st Century, when the Archives has to  respond to changes he and his colleagues could not even dream of … changes both in records themselves, and in the people who use them.

Today, we’re meeting those challenges by launching a major process of transformation at the Archives. It is a transformation very much in line with the Open Government initiative that President Obama announced on his first full day in office in 2009. The President called for transparency, collaboration, and participation.

Those concepts are embedded in our mission statement. Our transformation process is taking them to a new level. To so, we’re trying to heed Yogi Berra’s sage advice, “You got to be very careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there.”

And we’re not going to follow the example of the daredevil Evel Knievel, who said, “I did everything by the seat of my pants. That's why I got hurt so much.”

Our transformation plan carefully lays out where our reorganization of NARA is going—we’re going to reduce redundancies, streamline decision-making, and lay the foundation for a very different way of doing business.  In particular, the transformation will make it easier for our staff to provide better services to our customers.

The plan includes six key changes in our structure and culture.

  • 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.

I could give a 20 minute speech on each one of these areas, but for now I’ll just say that this transformation will put customers at the center of everything we do, allowing us to better provide access to records in a more open government.

Above all, the Transformation will make it possible for the 21st Century Archives to embrace the future… the dramatic changes are occurring in information itself.

I’ll admit it. Those changes can be a little disorienting for someone like me, who graduated from Simmons just before Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded Microsoft and Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded Apple.  I still remember when the very first fax machine arrived in the telecommunications office at MIT.  When the fax was received it was immediately put into campus mail for delivery!

But even for those of you who grew up digital and are now complete IT heads, the future will pose some interesting challenges when you start work as an archivist.  Let me mention three of them—what I call The Three Paradoxes.

The first is the “more but less” paradox: As technology makes it possible to gather greater and greater amounts of information, it has become dramatically more difficult to manage that information. The clay tablets from ancient Sumeria can still be seen today; medieval manuscripts on animal parchment are perfectly readable.

But books printed on acidic paper are turning to dust on our shelves; videotapes deteriorate much more quickly than does traditional movie film.

The floppies of our recent past are all but useless. What was the shelf-life of an 8-track tape? Can anybody here remember WordPerfect? FoxPro? Netscape Navigator? Where have you gone, MS-DOS?
At the National Archives we’re trying to deal with this problem in two ways. We have a kind of Museum of Obsolete Technology at one of our facilities, where we transfer information from thin steel wire, read optical disks and 8-inch floppies.

We’ve also launched one of the most challenging projects in our history--- the creation of the Electronic Records Archives—or ERA. We’re developing ways to preserve and provide access to any type of electronic record created by a federal agency no matter what changes in hardware or software may occur.

The second paradox is the “openness vs. privacy” paradox. As you and every other information professional knows so well, new networking and information technologies have made it possible for more people in more places to have access to more information than ever before.

At the same time, this new availability of information makes it more important and more difficult to keep certain kinds of vital information private.

In almost any job you do when you leave here, you’ll have to weigh evidence and make judgments as you try to walk the access/privacy line. We certainly do at the Archives. 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. And we are also committed to ensuring that personal information remains private.

The third paradox you’ll have to deal with is the “new technologies vs. old regulations” one. We all know how quickly technology can change. I’m going to talk about social media in a moment. It’s critically important today, but it developed so quickly that I wouldn’t have mentioned it in a speech to library students and professors even five years ago.

Laws change much more slowly…take it from someone who now lives and works in the nation’s capital. The result is that I can guarantee that you will be frustrated and maybe even angered by some of the outmoded rules you’ll have to work under, even if you get the archives job you’ve always dreamed of.

No discussion of the future of information would be complete without mentioning social media. It might surprise you to know that the Archives are very involved in it. When I’m asked why, I like to paraphrase the bank robber Willie Sutton. When he was asked why he robbed so many banks, Sutton replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” The Archives is involved in social media because that’s where the information is.

The Presidential Libraries, several regional archives, the Federal Register, and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission all have their own Facebook pages.  We are up on Flickr—with some 360,000 visitors, and we are on YouTube. We welcomed our first Wikipedian in Residence last month.  And speaking of Wikipedia, we hosted one of the 10th Birthday Celebrations at the National Archives.  My favorite post- celebration post:  “If it’s good enough for the Archivist of the United States…”

As impressive as the changes in the technology of information may be, I would argue that change in the mind set of the consumers of the information we preserve is equally important.

When I was studying at Simmons, researchers – whether scholars or amateurs --had to rely on gatekeepers, professional librarians and archivists, to get the information they wanted. Sometimes this was by choice – navigating your way through an archive often required special training. Sometimes it was by necessity: researchers were excluded from stacks to prevent theft or damage of materials. I call that the special library approach.

Today, that approach has been pushed aside. We live at a time of powerful search engines, the rapid digitization of books and records, and growing customer demand for transparency and accessibility from all organizations –public, private, and nonprofit. Researchers want to be able to access and parse out information for themselves.

At the National Archives, we’re encouraging employees to evolve – to stop manning the barricades, and find ways to open more doors.

Which brings me to the part of my speech of most interest to students about to go on the job hunt. It’s the part where I try to answer the question, given all these changes, what skills are we at the Archives looking for in new hires?

  • First of all, we are definitely considering people with a broader range of background than was the case when I was a grad student. In addition to library science, history and other subject matter areas are important. Above all, we want people who can connect archival work with real life experiences.
  • Technical savvy is a given, to work in a modern archive. And by savvy, I mean not just experience with the latest technologies, but also a sense of excitement about putting those technologies to work.
  • Next, with all the rapid change going on, today’s archivist must be highly adaptable and able to tolerate ambiguity. To be honest, some of the students I taught here back in the day wanted a job that would be reliable and predictable year after year. Today, if you need a blueprint of what your job going to be like in five years… the Archives isn’t for you.
  • You also have to be very comfortable with collaboration. Can you “play well with others?” Working with diverse people and a range of organizations is more important than ever in an era of shrinking budgets.
  • Finally, and this may be the biggest change. We’re looking for people with a strong awareness of the need to serve customers…human customers. Sadly, if you ask many veteran archivists who their customers are, they may well say “the records.”

But an archivist in the 21st Century is no longer about sitting down with a box of records for years and years. To work at the National Archives, you must be able to meet and anticipate the needs of the public— both individual researchers and other agencies and organizations.

I want to close by quoting a great American who knew nothing about 21st Century archives, but who understood very well why our profession is so special. President Franklin Roosevelt, in dedicating the FDR Library in Hyde Park, 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.

As you or your students begin careers as information management and library professionals embrace the challenges of the field, revel in the historic opportunities presented by new technologies, and remember that you are helping America create its own future.
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