About the National Archives

Remarks of Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero at the Wikipedia in Higher Education Summit, Simmons College, Boston.

July 9, 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 Dominic McDevitt-Parks, a graduate student at Simmons College who is the National Archives’ first Wikipedian in Residence.

Thank you, Dominic, for that kind introduction. And my thanks to the Wikimedia Foundation for inviting me to be a part of this Higher Education Summit. I’m a big fan of Wikipedia, for reasons I’ll discuss in a moment. And I’m now a huge fan of all of you here today, who are leading the way in connecting colleges, universities and the people’s encyclopedia.

As Dominic mentioned, I both studied and taught at Simmons, so returning here always brings back a lot of memories. In particular, it reminds me how much things have changed.

I graduated just before Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded Microsoft and Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded Apple. The Internet?  An interesting DARPA  technology experiment. 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!  And when the Christian Science Monitor was experimenting with delivery by microwave—delivery across the river to a printer in my reading room on the MIT campus.

Coping with dizzying changes in information technology has certainly been a challenge for those of us who got our start back in the day. But I would argue that the institutions where many of us built careers confront an even bigger challenge than replacing Selectric typewriters with networked PC’s: those institutions struggle with replacing traditional ways of thinking with new ones. That challenge had been especially daunting for archives and libraries, which are often more comfortable preserving the past than embracing the future, in their DNA, and for higher education, which is blessed with and burdened by centuries of tradition.

Which brings me to Wikipedia.

If you look up Charles Van Doren in Wikipedia, the first thing you’ll see is that he was caught up in 1950’s quiz show scandals. But he was also a distinguished scholar and editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Van Doren once said, “Because the world is radically new, the ideal encyclopedia should be radical, too.”

Wikipedia’s challenge is that archives and higher education tend to be wary of anything radical.

Today I’m going to discuss some ways of meeting that challenge. I’ll start by talking about the evolving relationship between the National Archives and Wikipedia, and then try to draw some lessons that may be useful for higher education, and perhaps even for the future of our democracy.

I hope that everyone in this room has used the National Archives for scholarly or personal research. If you have, your probably know that our core mission remains unchanged from the day we were created as a Federal agency in 1934. We preserve records that are created by the United States government—more than 275 agencies and the White House. More specifically we preserve that two percent to three percent of all government records 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; 18 million maps, charts, and architectural drawings; miles of film and video records; and 40 million photographs; 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 many documents linked to Wikipedia pages.

These records are in facilities around the country:

  • 14 Regional Archives including one in the Boston area,
  • 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.

While our core mission remains unchanged, the 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 was a huge problem. In the 21st Century, one of our biggest challenges is finding ways to preserve records when information technology changes so rapidly, often making last year’s records obsolete.

Medieval manuscripts on animal parchment are perfectly readable. But 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 same time, the National Archives is about more than simply keeping records safe and sound. Thomas Jefferson said, “Information is the currency of democracy.” To keep democracy healthy and vibrant, I believe strongly that currency must be circulated, available and put to use by as many people as possible.

Here’s how President Obama put it when he issued his Open Government Directive: “My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government.  We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration.  Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”

On his first day in office, in a meeting with his Senior Staff, he laid out the foundation of his administration, a foundation which certainly resonated with this librarian, minding his own business at the New York Public Library.  He said:

“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 and entrepreneurs—because the way to solve the problem of our time—the way to solve the problems of our time, as one nation, is by involving the American people in shaping policies that affect their lives.” 

And this citizen engagement is something which I have taken to heart as I have assumed my duties of Archivist of the United States.

At the Archives, the concepts of openness and access are embedded in our mission. And the work we do everyday is rooted in the belief that citizens have the right to see, examine, and learn from the records that guarantee citizen’s rights, document government actions, and tell the story of the nation.
My biggest challenge is visibility.  Not everyone knows who we are, what we do, or, more importantly, the amazing resources we collect and house.  A lesson I learned during my time in New York was that it isn’t good enough to create great digital collections and sit back and expect people to find you.  You need to be where the people are.

So, our efforts are focused on getting our content onto all of the existing and emerging Web 2.0 platforms.  Right now you’ll find us on YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare, and many, many blogs.  You’ll find our publications available through Scibd, Zinio, and multiple RSS feeds.  And we provide other ways of contributing with Ideascale and Wikispaces.     
Our growing relationship with Wikipedia is one of the newest and most important ways we are making real the public’s rights to see, examine and learn from records.

To introduce you to the evolving relationship between the National Archives and Wikipedia, let me tell you about a young man named Dominic McDevitt-Parks, a graduate student here at Simmons. He’s wicked young. He describes himself as “history buff, a word nerd, a news junkie and an occasional pedant.” Most importantly, he is the Archives first Wikipedian in Residence. And as far as we know, he is in an extremely exclusive club.

There are only a handful of these folks in the world who have the responsibility of fostering collaboration among the Wikipedia the GLAM community—Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums.  After all these years, it is nice to be 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 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 online volunteers as possible to discuss, react to and build on that content.  

Here’s an example: 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 way-- to learn more about the photo, and even write an article about it. Sure enough, it led to a brand new Wikipedia  article about desegregation in the Marine Corps.

Our Wikipedian in Residence program, and the new and better forms of cooperation he’s developing with the Wikipedia community even as we speak, grew out an event in January of this year.  The National Archives hosted the Washington, D.C. celebration of Wikipedia’s 10th anniversary. Over 90 Wikipedians enjoyed lightening talks, unconference sessions, and behind-the-scene tours of the stacks of the National Archives.  It was a meeting of the minds among National Archives staff, who introduced our records and online resources and Wikipedians who taught us more about this terrific information resource.

At the event, one Wikipedian blogger wrote,

“Now we can all say: If Wikipedia is good enough for the Archivist of the United States, maybe it should be good enough for you.”

Our work with Wikipedia is not only good enough, it’s great for us because it takes our goals of transparency, public participation, and collaboration to a new level.

You know, when the bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed so many banks, Sutton replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” The Archives is involved with Wikipedia because that’s where the people are.

Just a couple of examples. We’re very proud of the National Archives Web site, especially since we re-launched it last year. It’s less cluttered, easier to navigate, and allows researchers from amateurs to professors to better find what they’re looking for. But the fact is, our “Daily Document,” which I mentioned earlier, probably only gets a thousand or so hits a day. When that Marine Corps photo appeared on the main Wikipedia page, it got 12 million, million, hits.

Overall, 42 percent of Americans turn to Wikipedia for information, so it’s a terrific way for us to make Archives content more transparent and available.

And I’ve been part of that 42 percent for a long time. In fact, it’s often the first place I go for information. Now I have to admit, that Wikipedia first got my attention when I was at the New York Public Library, and I came across my own profile on the site. Someone, who is unknown to me even today, had put it up. And it was very fair and complete.

To be sure, not everyone is as enthusiastic about Wikipedia as I am, especially in your field, in higher education. Which brings me to my last quote about encyclopedias. The first person I quoted today was a scholar, the second was a founder, and this one was a major league catcher – Yogi Berra. Yogi said, “I'm not going to buy my kids an encyclopedia. Let them walk to school like I did.”

Okay. This is probably one of those quotes that is too good to be true. But it illustrates the misunderstandings that can arise around a reference source.

In my view, that’s the case with Wikipedia and higher education. For many faculty and information professionals in higher education, Wikipedia is suspect. I’ve heard the concerns about accuracy and reliability, as I’m sure you have. And yet, comparative studies by neutral observers show errors do not appear more frequently in Wikipedia than its printed counterparts. I would argue that the power people have to flag or change incorrect or biased content means errors can be fixed and neutrality contested.

That’s not to say people – including professors – like being corrected. For example an archivist at the New York Public Library noticed some small errors in a Wikipedia entry about the famous screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky. When she made the edits, she got flamed by the professor who had written the original. She calmly replied that she was looking at the source documents from the Chayefsky collection and the original was wrong. Chalk one up for the power of the Wikipedia. 

Still the skepticism is real. I know you see it often on your campuses. And I recently got an up close and personal reminder of how far Wikipedia  has to go from my 14 year old God daughter and her brother. They go to an American school in Panama and we got together a couple of weeks ago in New York.

The adult conversation somehow was about Wikipedia.  Sarah piped up with, “It’s lies.”  Sarah and Robert both said that their teachers forbid the use of   Wikipedia.  I’ll be in Panama in November celebrating Sarah’s birthday and have asked to visit her school!

But what about you?

What can those of you who believe in Wikipedia do to overcome skepticism and strengthen the ties between your institutions and this great resource?

First of all, keep doing what you’re doing. At the Archives we’ve found that the best way to overcome misconceptions about Wikipedia is to encourage people to use and work with it. That’s why the work you’re doing to encourage students to use Wikipedia in the classroom is so important. It affects not only the students who do the writing and research, but also your colleagues who see Wikipedia in action.

In particular, keep encouraging your students (and maybe even your colleagues) to write for Wikipedia. It is a terrific learning opportunity – exposing students to the experience of collaboration, feedback, and even conflict in pursuit of new knowledge. In addition, instead of telling students to shun Wikipedia, institutions of higher education should be telling them to be critical consumers of information, an increasingly important tool in the digital age.

And as Wikipedia ambassadors, be bold … but collegial. This is higher education after all. Work with the Wikimedia Foundation to expose more students, faculty, and staff to the terrific ways the free encyclopedia can help them achieve the institutions mission. 

And if all else fails, you can tell them that “if it’s good enough for the Archivist…we should at least take a look here on campus.”

Thank you.

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