About the National Archives

Remarks of Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero at the Triangle Research Library Network Annual Meeting, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

July 25, 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?

 “Creating a Customer Focused Organization”

The Archivist was introduced by Sarah Michalak, University Librarian and Associate Provost for University Libraries at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Thanks, Sarah, for that kind introduction.  It is nice to be back in the Triangle among old friends and colleagues.  And to meet the folks who have come after me.  It is an exciting time to be in libraries and archives.  Take it from someone who has been at this for a long time—this is THE MOST EXCITING TIME.

At a time when distrust, discontent, and anger with the Government is at its worst, I thought I would share with you what one small agency is doing to put the customer at the center of all we do.  And perhaps, in some small way, convince the 78 percent of the American public who distrust their Government that there is hope.

One of the things that convinced me to move from New York to Washington was this Administration’s focus on openness.  The day after his inauguration, President Obama addressed his staff with these words: 

“Our commitment to openness means more than simply informing the American people about how decisions are made.  It means recognizing that the 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 of 2009, just a month after I assumed my duties, 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.

All agencies and departments were required to develop Open Government Plans focused on incorporating transparency, collaboration, and participation into how we do our work—within our staff and with the public.

For the new guy in town, it was a chance to work with my staff to create a customer focused agency prepared to anticipate and meet the needs of the 21st Century.  And it confirmed my hunch that signing on to work in this Administration was a good move.

I’m not sure that everyone here knows the National Archives and Records Administration, so let me say a few words about who we are and what we do as context to the rest of my remarks.  First, we are NOT the Library of Congress—a question I get regularly. 

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. 

The good folks at Wilson Library were kind enough to send me copies of many of Connor’s papers and speeches so I have some sense of the challenges he faced in creating the Archives—identifying and evaluating the records and their condition, convincing the Cabinet agencies to transfer those records, recruiting staff and developing archival procedures—and a wonderful article he wrote about his interview for the job with FDR and the President’s first visit to the Archives.  Thanks, Tim, to you and your staff.  And thanks also, Tim, for your help on my latest quest—the origins of the hushpuppy!

We are in 44 facilities around the country, from Anchorage, Alaska to Atlanta, Georgia.  Regional Records Centers, Military Records, Civilian Personnel Records, 13 Presidential Libraries from Hoover to Bush 43, more than a million square feet of space on the University of Maryland campus, and the flagship facility on Pennsylvania Avenue, exactly halfway between the White House and the Hill, where the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are on display—as well as David Rubenstein’s copy of the Magna Carta.

Our work is governed by two sets of laws—the Federal Records Act and the Presidential Records Act.  On the Federal side, only two percent to three percent of everything that is created is considered of permanent legal or historic value and is transferred to us.  On the Presidential side, everything is record.

Compliance with both Acts has resulted in a collection numbering more than 12 billion pages, 40 million photographs, miles and miles of video and film, and 5.3b electronic records—the fastest growing part of the collection.  To give you a sense of that, we have 20 million email messages from the Clinton White House and 240 million from the George W. Bush White House.       

In addition to what we own, we provide courtesy storage to the White House Gift Office—gifts to the First Family which will eventually end up in that Presidential Library.  We also provide courtesy storage to Congress, so we have all the records of both Houses going back to the Continental Congress.

Because we have the records, we have three additional responsibilities—all focused on improved access to the records of  Government:

Our Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) oversees the classification programs of government and industry—ensuring public access where appropriate, but safeguarding national security information.  This office also reviews requests for original classification authority from agencies and does on-site inspections to monitor compliance with security requirements. 

It may surprise you to learn that there are more than 2,400 different classification guides in use in Federal Government.  One of ISOO’s mandates is to reduce that number!    

In September 2009, we established the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), which monitors activity government-wide under the Freedom of Information Act.  Its mission is to improve the FOIA process and resolve disputes between Federal Agencies and FOIA requesters. 

In the last year, FOIA shined a light on oil drilling, falsified military valor claims, and Government credit card misuses, among many other examples.  Deepwater Horizon is a good example of the power of FOIA: 

After the April 2010 BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity analyzed data obtained under FOIA and reported in May that 97 percent of all “egregious willful” violations cited by Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors in the previous three years were found at two BP-owned refineries. 

The Associated Press relied on FOIA to report in May that the Minerals Management Service (recently renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement) violated its own policy by not conducting monthly inspections on BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig. 

Two weeks later, the New York Times reported that Federal drilling records and well reports obtained from the Bureau under FOIA helped reveal a history of problems with a blowout preventer and casing long before the Deepwater Horizon explosion.   

The National Declassification Center was created by Executive Order at the end of December 2009 with the mandate to review a backlog of some 400m pages of classified records going back to World War I by the end of December 2013 with the aim of releasing anything that does not contain national security or weapons of mass destruction content. 

The priorities for review have very much been driven by user input—a blog and open fora for researchers to tell us which categories of records are most important to their research needs.   So far we have reviewed about 30 percent of the collection with the agencies holding equities in the documents and have released 91 percent of the documents which have been fully reviewed, including the six oldest form 1917 and 1918.   

On April 18, [then CIA Director]Leon Paneta announced that the six documents would be released by the CIA.  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 release of these records involved some tough behind-the-scenes work by my staff to free these espionage documents from the CIA vault.  The CIA has been fighting FOIA requests for these documents for years.

The CIA finally came around to the argument that had 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. The priorities for review have very much been driven by user input.

That’s a quick overview of who we are and what we do.     

So who are our customers?  In no particular order:  The White House; The Federal Agencies and Departments;  The Hill; Genealogists; Veterans; Historians, Political Scientists, and Other Scholars; University and College Students; the K-12 Community; and the General Public.

Let me shift now to the work we are doing to transform the agency into a customer focused organization.  We launched a staff driven process just a year ago, engaging the 3500 members of the staff around the country and our stakeholders through the use of social media tools, to create a new organization and a set of organizational values to which we aspire. 

In my first six months on the job I visited more than 20 of my sites to get to meet the staff and listen to them talk about what it was like to work at the agency.  And I met with all of our stakeholder groups to learn what it was like to be a customer of the National Archives.  The messages were pretty consistent—and disturbing--across the country and they got translated into the six pillars of our transformation plan:

  • 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.

The new organization brings together like services across the country for the first time in a new configuration which reduces redundancy, is more efficient, and, most importantly, improves the user experience—for each of our user groups.  We have set up all but two of the new units and those will be set up soon.  You can find more information than you want to know on archives.gov.
Of particular interest to me is the creation of a Research Customer Support unit which will manage a Research Customer Council—the voice of the user at the table for the first time—and a suite of staff Customer Teams focused on the needs of  Veterans, Genealogists, the Courts, Native Americans, and those seeking Scientific or Diplomatic information for instance.    

I want you also to know that we have not waited for this new organization and culture to begin changing the nature of our engagement with our customer base.  We have been practicing the Open Government tenets of transparency, collaboration, and participation in all that we do.  Let me just hit some of the high points:

We have reimagined our website, our online front door, to make it more user friendly, easier to navigate, and more intuitive to the needs of our customers.  The process of redesign actually engaged our customers and we got a lot of feedback on what they wanted to see.

We launched the Online Public Access (OPA) prototype built on Vivisimo to provide quicker access to what our users are asking for, in the format they need.  Less upfront MARC tag-like information, more graphics, and more surrogates on the first search.  On June 15, we launched OPA’s tagging feature, encouraging our users to help enhance our records—840 tags contributed so far and only 10 havebeen deemed irrelevant.

We have created a Web 2.0 version of the Federal Register, written in plain English for the first time, which makes it easy for the general public to track legislation, comment on proposed legislation, and better understand how government works.  You probably didn’t know that we publish the Federal Register, the Government’s newspaper, every day.

Our emerging Citizen Archivist program acknowledges the fact that often our users know so much more about our records than we do and attempts to capture some of that intelligence in a Wiki that can then be used to augment our records to help the next user. 

Jonathan Deiss, for instance, is a researcher who discovered a Revolutionary War diary in legislative records and Ken Price from the Walt Whitman Digital Archive at the University of Nebraska discovered more than 3,000 documents in our Attorney General records in Walt Whitman’s hand.
We have mounted Docs Teach, which is aimed at the K-12 community—4,500 primary sources for use in the classroom and teacher contributed lessons plans.

We are using every possible social media platform to connect with our users wherever they are and to attract new users:  YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, Blogs, Twitter, FourSquare, Zinio, etc.
And most recently, the most exciting venture yet, we have a Wikipedian in Residence.  Dominic McDevitt-Parks, a graduate student in the archival program at Simmons, is spending three months with us, one of a handful of folks around  the world who have the responsibility of fostering collaboration among the Wikipedia and GLAM communities—Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums.  After all these years, it really is nice to finally have my community recognized as GLAM! 

Founder Jimmy Wales described Wikipedia’s goal this way:  “to give a free encyclopedia to every person in the world, in their own language.  Not just in a ‘free beer’ kind of way, but also in the free speech kind of way.”      

So it won’t surprise you that our Wikipedian is not just giving the public “free beer”—access to the permanent records of the Archives—but he is also encouraging people to use those records in a “free speech kind of way.”  He works to get as many volunteers to discuss, react to, and build on that content.

Two examples of Dominic’s work:

The Archives website has a feature called “Today’s Document”—it’s a photo or a document with a small explanatory blurb, one we think would be especially interesting to the public. 

When we posted a photo of the first African American recruit for the U.S. Marine Corps, Dominic worked to get it placed on Wikipedia’s main page.  And he challenged the Wikipedia community—in a nice National Archives kind of way—to learn more about the photo, and even write an article about it.  Sure enough, within hours it lead to a brand new Wikipedia article about desegregation in the Marines Corps. 

Impact? 

Our “Daily Document” probably gets about a thousand or so hits a day.  When it hit the main Wikipedia page it got 12 million, that is MILLION, hits.

In his latest venture, Dominic has mounted 220 high res Ansel Adams photographs (Adams was commissioned by the Department of Interior to take these photos making them Government records) on the Wikimedia Commons.

This is the beginning of what I hope will be a long association with our new friends at Wikipedia. 
So that is a glimpse of some of what we have accomplished to date as we try to engage our customers in a more participatory and collaborative way.

One last emerging opportunity for citizen engagement is the work being done to conceive a Digital Public Library of America.  The conversations to date have involved a variety of stakeholders including large urban libraries, university libraries, private foundations, and government agencies.  The goal is for a public-private partnership to create a digital cultural heritage portal as most European countries have. 

You’ve probably read some of Robert Darnton of Harvard’s writing about this.  The project is still very much in its infancy as issues of governance, funding, goals, and even the name get argued.  But it has the potential of providing our users with an even richer digital experience than they have had to date.     

Let me close with a glimpse of the future for all of us.  You know, throughout my professional life I have striven hard to get the work of my area of responsibility reflected in the annual report of my superior—department head, library director, or university president.  In January, my new supervisor came through 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.   

I’ll close with some advice on customer service—advice developed over the years as someone who has focused his entire career on trying to get the service equation right.

  • First, look for models of good customer service, study them, train to them, and emulate them.  In general, look outside libraries and archives.  Look at Zappos, Amazon, L.L. Bean, FedEx, for example and what can you learn from how they deal with customers.  I’ve become a big fan of Tony Hsieh (shay), the CEO of Zappos.  In his book, Delivering Happiness:  a Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose, he articulates the ten core values of the Zappos culture. 
  •  Deliver WOW Through Service
  • Embrace and Drive Change
  •  Create Fun and a Little Weirdness
  • Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
  • Pursue Growth and Learning
  • Build Open and Honest Relationships with Communication
  • Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  • Do More with Less
  • Be Passionate and Determined
  • Be Humble 
  •  Look for ways to engage your customers.  We all have a lot to learn from them.  And they are desperate to talk!  I remember doing an Information Seeking Behavior Study at MIT and how easy it was to get faculty to talk about their research—no one else wanted to listen to them.
  • Customers Don’t Come First.  Vineet Nayar, in a book entitled Employees First, Customers Second:  Turning Conventional Management Upside Down, writes:  “In any service business…the true value is created in the interface between the customer and the employee…so, by putting employees first, you can bring about fundamental change in the way a company creates and delivers unique value for its customers.”  For me, if you can’t get the employee equation right (training, support, resources, etc.) you will never succeed with the customer service equation. 
  • Unless you genuinely like working with people, stay out of customer service.  Which is very hard to do in a service organization!  This may sound like a no brainer, but I am continually amazed at the number of people providing service who hate working with the public.  Even in my own organization.  A recent issue of the Washington Post Sunday Magazine had an interview with one of my archivists in which he outs some of his colleagues. 
  • He said:  “There are definitely two types of personalities at the Archives.  We have the introverts that would be very happy being in the stacks, not talking to anyone all day long—just come in and work with the records and not deal with people.  The people that tend to be in Reference are the more outgoing types, where literally our jobs are helping people.”  And I am a firm believer that internal customers are as important as external customers, so if you don’t like working with customers, rethink your career choice. 
And, finally, you’re never done.  Don’t ever think you have conquered the customer service equation.  It can always be improved.  Just talk to your customers!     
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