About the National Archives

Remarks of Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero at the Plenary Session of the Annual Meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) in Chicago.

August 26, 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 Helen R. Tibbo, president of SAA and professor at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Thank you, Helen for that kind introduction.

Thanks also, for inviting me to be here this morning. It is truly an honor to be part of SAA’s Diamond Jubilee meeting. And it is a special pleasure for me to have the chance to celebrate the close connections between SAA and NARA that have marked the relationship for seven and a half decades.

Both our organizations were born during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, and so in tribute to him I want to let you know I have taken to heart his speechifying advice: I WILL BE SINCERE, I WILL BE BRIEF, AND I WILL BE SEATED.

The year SAA held its first meeting, the National Archives was barely three years old. In a very real sense, then, we have grown up together, and the close ties between continue until this day.

Many NARA staff members-including the Archivist of the United States-are SAA members. They serve on key SAA committees; they are our officers. The flow of information and ideas remains a constant, especially here in Chicago.

Many NARA staff members are here learning from the speeches, sessions and posters. Some are making presentations. And of course, I hope you'll stop by one of our two booths-204 and 205-in the exhibits.

The first Archivist of the United States addressed this group at the sixth annual meeting in 1942 and reflected upon the adventures of establishing the Archives. Robert Connor said:

"The setting up of the National Archives introduced a new word into the American language that seemed to appeal to the responsibilities of the Washington newsmongers. Apparently they had never heard, not to say used, the word 'archives' unless, parrot-like, they wanted to consign something to 'the archives of gravity,' without knowing in the least what they were or where they were located. When the appointment of an archivist was announced, the more curious among them dashed off to consult their Websters that they might display their erudition before their less curious colleagues…'

He goes on…

"For several months after my arrival in Washington, friends invariably introduced me to strangers with the apologetic explanation, 'Mr. Connor is our first archivist.' With a perfectly blank stare, the other invariable countered with, "And just what is an archivist?''

More than seventy years later, the Archivist of the United States is still answering that question and trying to convince people that he is not the Librarian of Congress!

This morning, I thought I would make my to own contribution to our exchange of ideas by focusing on the Coming of Age in the Digital Era that Helen described so well: What are the challenges going digital presents for NARA? While the scale may be unique to us, I know that most of you here are facing the same challenges.

The first digital challenge NARA faces is quantity. When it comes to government records, we are witnessing a huge expansion of digital information. How huge? To give you some perspective: we have 20 million e-mail messages from the Clinton White House and 240 million from George W. Bush's eight years.

Along with quantity comes the "format' challenge. Not only has the amount of information expanded, but the digital age created and discarded a dizzying array of formats, leaving us with the task of managing and curating things like EBCDIC and WordPerfect and FoxPro and Netscape Navigator and MS DOS.

In addition, when it comes to digital information, we face the "new technologies vs. old regulations' challenge. Yes, digital technology changes amazingly quickly…but laws evolve slowly. Take it from someone who now lives and works in the nation's capital. The result is that that we sometimes have to work under frustratingly outmoded rules. My guess is that most of you have come up against this in your archives as well. The Federal Records Act, for instance, has yet to acknowledge electronic content!

The final digital challenge that I want to talk about is social media. Simply put, social media combines the size and format challenges and puts them on steroids.

Consider just one part of the new social media dynamic: Facebook. Some 300,000 businesses in the U.S. are on Facebook, including the Federal Government. It took radio 38 years to reach an audience of 50 million; television reached the saturation point in 13 years; the Internet in 4 years; and the iPod in 3 years. In less than 9 months, Facebook added 100 million users. And here's an interesting data point: DoubleClick statistics for June were just released on Wednesday. Facebook has a 47 percent market penetration with 870 million unique users and one trillion page views. Just for June!

And of course the formats seem almost to morph daily-Facebook Twitter, Flickr, Foursquare, RSS feeds. Who can keep track of them all, let alone decide which part of the information should be archived?

Those are the challenges. How are we taking them on?

We're trying to deal with the size and format challenges of digitization 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.

As you know, we have been engaged for some time in the most challenging project in our history: the creation of the Electronic Records Archives-or ERA which moves from development to the full operational stage this fall. We're developing ways 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.

To narrow the gap between the new, digital technology, and outmoded regulations we are working closely with the Administration and Congress. The good news for the National Archives is that the current administration is a great believer in using digital media to provide greater access to information. And the current Congress and the White House appear amenable to dealing with the Federal Records Act deficiencies.

As for social media, we have developed guidelines for federal agencies on managing social media content. For example, social media content is probably a government record, if the answer to any of these questions is "yes".

  • Is the information unique and not available anywhere else?
  • Does it contain evidence of an agency's policies, business, mission, etc.?
  • Is this tool being used in relation to the agency's work?
  • Is use of the tool authorized by the agency?
  • Is there a business need for the information?

Over the past year and half, we have embraced social media as a way to reach out to our customers. I feel strongly that in order for us to be doing our job, that is providing guidance on the records implications of new and emerging technologies, we MUST be out in front in their use.

We now have 34 Facebook pages for every niche interest. Some deal with particular record groups and periods in history, some with archival science. There are features about interesting events in history that are documented in our holdings, and there are news and features from the Archives.

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 227,000 views, and we are on YouTube.

We have 11 blogs, including my own, that draw an audience of 7,000 every week.

Earlier this year, we welcomed our first Wikipedian in Residence, one of only a handful in the world. He's working full time to use Wikipedia, and the Wikipedia community, to make our content more available to the public. By putting one of our "Today's Documents"onto WikiMedia Commons, we have gone to maybe a 1,000 views to more than 12 million!

Which brings me to a key point about going digital at the National Archives: we don't take on the challenges of the Digital Age in a vacuum.

As the Archives moves into the 21st Century, we're striving to stay focused the ideal on which we're founded: to keep a democracy healthy and vibrant, its citizens must be well informed.

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.

Right now we're executing a major transformation plan, a careful reorganization that is reducing redundancies, streamlining decision-making, and laying the foundation for a very different way of doing business.

At the core of this transformation is openness and transparency -- providing better services to our customers from federal agencies, to professional scholars, to the general public-and all of you in this room.

Openness, transparency, and a well-informed citizenry are also at the core of how we're meeting the challenge of digital technology. What we preserve, how we preserve it, and how we make it available.

Though I've been talking about what NARA is doing, I want to conclude by saying that, as we take on digital and other challenges, we depend on the flow of input and ideas from SAA. In fact, we'd have a very tough time pursuing our mission without you.

Among the many ways the National Archives works with you is the NHPRC [National Historical Publications and Records Commission]. I know you are especially are concerned about its funding-but not more than I am.

Unfortunately, this not an easy time for any federal agency, and it is a particularly tough time for agencies that award grants. As you know, the House of Representatives recently cut the NHPRC appropriation down to $1 million for Fiscal Year 2012.

I don't like it, you don't like it. And it probably does not make you feel better for me to say that that at least it is not zero. But in the current climate, it very well could have been zero. And that is a very important point to keep in mind as the rest of the FY 12 appropriations process plays out.

It is not zero because the voices of professional archivists have been heard. The pressure on our supporters on the House Appropriations Committee to simply eliminate funding for programs has never been greater. But, if we keep working together there can be a better outcome at the end of the process.

We've been through a lot together in the last 75 years. And the digital challenge is just one of the many we will face in the next 75. That's why I want to keep NARA working closely with SAA, so we can continue to learn from and provide support to each other as we promote archives and the professional archivists in the 21st Century.

Thank you.

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