About the National Archives

Remarks of Deputy Archivist of the United States Debra Steidel Wall at the meeting of the Association of Research Libraries and the Canadian Association of Research Libraries in Montreal, Quebec.

May 5, 2011

"The US National Archives as a National Memory Organization"

Thank you. I am delighted to be here. The National Archives is proud to be one of ARL's newest members. I bring greetings from the Archivist of the United States David Ferriero who is disappointed not to be here. He's back in Washington, where we are launching our new International Holocaust Records Database, a collaborative project documenting Nazi-Era cultural property, bringing together the records of six countries and 11 cultural agencies and organizations.

As a new member, let me start by briefly explaining the role of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

We are the nation's records keeper — in effect, our national memory. Our mission is to serve American democracy by safeguarding and preserving the records of the American Government, ensuring that the people can discover, use, and learn from this documentary heritage. We ensure continuing access to the essential documentation of the rights of American citizens and the actions of their government.

We operate 44 facilities from Anchorage, Alaska to Atlanta, Georgia, including the 13 Presidential Libraries. We have 3,500 staff members. 10 billion pieces of paper, 40 million photographs. Miles of video and film. Nearly 100 terabytes of electronic information. And, of course, the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill Of Rights, the founding Charters of American Freedom.

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It is fitting that our building in Washington, D.C., is adorned with the phrase "The Past is Prologue" because today we are faced with many of the same challenges we were faced with at our creation as a Federal agency a little more than 75 years ago.

At that time, the new National Archives was confronted with a huge but unquantified avalanche of paper records that had been stored haphazardly and in often abominable condition throughout the government for 150 years.

Nothing of this sort had ever been done in the United States, leaving the new staff at the National Archives unfettered in devising systems and means to bring the information and the materials under control. In those heady early days, the first Archivist, R.D.W. Connor, and his peers created the principles of modern records management, accessioning, processing, preservation, and access that we still use today. They brought order to the chaos, and ensured that succeeding generations would have access to the raw material of the Federal government.

Today, we are again faced with an avalanche of records of unknown volume and condition - this time electronic records.

We are all well familiar with the complexities of electronic information management:

  • The speed of the obsolescence of software, hardware, and media;
  • The mind-boggling and ever-increasing pace at which information is generated;
  • The new ways in which we communicate with each other and in which we consume information, where everything is saved but little is preserved.

And today, as in 1934, we are once again at risk of losing significant portions of our national memory. Across the U.S. government t agencies are not doing an effective enough job managing records and other information assets.

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Last year, we required all Federal agencies to perform a self-assessment of their records management programs. Responses came from 270 cabinet-level departments and their components, as well as independent agencies. The results were not encouraging. We found that 95 percent of all the agencies are at either a moderate or high risk of improper destruction of records or compromising the integrity, authenticity, and reliability of their records.

That we have already lost a piece of our national memory is not in doubt.

Like Archivist Connor and his colleagues before us, we are presented with the challenge, and opportunity, of reinventing records management and archival theory and practice to meet the realities of a new environment. The questions that those early National Archives staffers asked are equally valid today:

  • How do we deal with the scale of number of records created?
  • What is a record in this day and age, and how do we handle the kinds of records that we now create?
  • And finally, is saving it all enough? Or, put another way, what is the purpose of an archives?

* * * *

Throughout the last third of the 20th century, a debate raged within the archival profession about whether electronic records altered how we work. Some, like David Bearman, Richard Cox, Margaret Hedstrom, Terry Cook, and Charles Dollar, argued that electronic records called for a new paradigm for archival practice. Others, including many at the National Archives and Records Administration, argued that the traditional principles of archiving were robust enough to manage electronic records.

It's true that the National Archives has been mostly successfully archiving some types of electronic records for over 40 years now. It is also true that there are gaping holes in the collection of agency electronic records over those 40 years, particularly in regard to email.

It is time to create that new paradigm.

For the National Archives, development of this new approach is unfolding against a backdrop of two very important initiatives.

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We are heading toward our digital future in an "open government" environment — heeding President Obama's call for more transparency, collaboration, and participation between government and citizens and among federal agencies.

At the Archives, we have embraced the President's Open Government Initiative. It was easy to do, for the principles of open government are embedded in our basic mission.

The second is our own internal transformation initiative. Led by Archivist David Ferriero, we are re-envisioning how the National Archives sees itself and does its work. We are restructuring to organize around our customers and their needs. We are undertaking a culture change to emphasize innovation and action, as well as openness, transparency, and participation. We are embracing the primacy of electronic records and the need to be "out in front" in the profession to address the new ways that people create and use government records.

Such a major change will not come quickly — we aim for 3 to 5 years — but we are already seeing results in three major areas:

* * * * *

To date, NARA's most important response to the digital challenge has been the development of the Electronic Records Archives — or ERA.

ERA was established in partnership with the private sector and developed using the best available research from around the world. The idea is to preserve and provide access to any type of electronic record created by a federal agency independent of hardware and software.

Progress on ERA has been slow and not without challenges, but steady. Now, we have 100 terabytes of electronic records in ERA — 82 of these terabytes are from the George W. Bush White House alone. ERA is already an operational system, being used every day by NARA staff and agencies, and we expect to complete development by the end of this year.

The ERA system will store and provide continuing access to the electronic records being created today, and our challenge is now two-fold: a) help agencies create and manage those electronic records so that they are preserved for the future And b) as we do this work with agencies, re-think the ERA system that we have created so that it continually evolves to meet the new paradigm we must create.

* * * * *

NARA has long recognized that content created by Federal agencies and placed on their web sites is, in many cases, a Federal record and must be managed as such.

As a result, we have been active in providing records management guidance to federal agencies as technological advances allow the creation of new types of records.

In 2005, we issued comprehensive guidance to Federal agencies on managing their web records. We discussed the ways in which agencies use websites, the basic laws that govern websites, the types of records typically accumulated on websites, and how to ensure trustworthy web records.

But the Internet was evolving from a static repository of documents into an environment of collaboration and communication across geographic and institutional boundaries.

NARA issued additional guidance in 2006 on the implications for records management. Since then we have continued to work with Federal agencies to understand their use of the web and identify records management concerns.

We now understand the ongoing, collaborative, and interactive nature of Web 2.0 platforms require agencies to determine if these factors impact previous records management determinations.

For instance, agencies should consider if content creation, such as comments left on an agency blog, need to be documented as part of the record. Agencies may also need to determine if the frequent update of the content requires additional strategies to capture the records. These determinations will impact how agencies properly manage records of their Web 2.0 interactions.

To assist Federal agencies in making that determination, NARA has issued a Bulletin on Managing Records in Web 2.0/Social Media Platforms. This Bulletin provides specific guidance and information to agencies about these platforms and how their use of them may affect existing records management procedures.

We also recently issued a Bulletin on Guidance on Managing Records in Cloud Computing Environments. This guidance informed agencies that there are records management implications when they start to explore and develop solutions that rely on the architecture of cloud computing.

However, we realize that it is not enough to tell agencies what to do — we also need to help them determine how to do it, and give them the tools to do it.

To that end, we have just appointed the first ever "Chief Records Officer," Paul Wester, to lead and oversee records management throughout the Federal Government. This new position will focus on managing the vast array of Federal electronic records and evaluating the effectiveness of Federal records management policies and programs. Recognizing that records management is the backbone of Open Government, Mr. Wester will host joint meetings between the Chief Information Officers Council and the Federal Records Management Council to encourage those critical partnerships in each department and agency.

We have also elevated our own internal records management program, and created within it a "Records Management Laboratory" that will work in partnership with our Chief Records Officer and new applied research unit to develop and pilot answers to the recordkeeping questions that arise from email, social media, and cloud computing. Our aim is to develop specific, concrete solutions that we can share with other agencies.

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At the National Archives, we never forget that our mission is to provide access to our holdings. We also know that the very nature of access has changed in the new electronic environment.

We have responded to these changes aggressively. We've just redesigned our web site, and launched a new Online Public Access portal that completely changes how we think about archival research.

No longer do users have to navigate a complex maze of finding aids and digital documents on multiple web sites and systems.

Now, they can go to one site, type in a search term, and bring back well-organized results from our web sites, our online catalogs and databases (including ERA), and our partners' web sites and services. And, recognizing that for today's students "if it isn't online it doesn't exist", we put the online records themselves front and center.

We are also taking a lead in social media in the Federal Government.

Two years ago, internal policy prevented NARA staff from even visiting social media sites. Today, we have more than 20 Facebook pages, 10,000 Twitter followers, multiple blogs including one by the Archivist, and a YouTube channel with more than a half-million views.

We launched our first mobile app - a Document of the Day - a few months ago, and are now developing an exciting application that will allow users to snap a photo of a document with their smartphone, tag it with metadata, and upload it to our catalog to share with others.

We look at social media not as a fad or a useful PR vehicle, but as a key component to fundamentally changing the way we interact with each other and with our users. To that end, we have plans to launch our own internal collaborative platform — or NARA Facebook — as a way for staff to work with each other and share knowledge across organizational and geographic divides — all in the name of better serving our customers.

And, we are committed to staying ahead of the curve so that we are prepared not only to meet but to lead the next phase of the social media and access revolution.

* * * * *

Yes, this world is a little messy and produces anxiety for many of us. Our role is no longer to serve as well-organized and helpful gatekeepers but as way finders. We have come to recognize that the vast force-multiplying effect of today's technology does indeed help us meet our mission to provide as many records to as many people as we can.

Although we are embracing the primacy of the electronic record, we know we must not leave behind our analog records, or a different type of memory gap will exist. NARA has ongoing external digitization partnerships with three organizations that have an interest in genealogical records. Family Search, Ancestry.com, and Footnote have scanned many of our most requested records. As a result of these partnerships, approximately 130 million images of NARA records are currently online, many of them with newly-created indexes.

130 million online documents sounds like a lot — and it is — until you realize that is only .01 per cent of our current paper holdings. Commonly held wisdom says that it would be impossible, not to mention unprofitable and undesirable, to digitize everything. It is time to re-examine that assumption.

James Collins and Jeffrey Porras encourage companies to define BHAGs — Big Hairy Audacious Goals — as a way to galvanize vision and strategy. What could be more audacious — and more in keeping with our mission as the nation's memory — than making the US government's information — whether born electronic or not — universally accessible to all people?

So, in returning to the theme of this panel — the role of national memory organizations in the digital information environment — I offer that while the challenges and methods have changed because of the electronic age, the role has remained the same, and, has become even more important.

At the US National Archives, our job as the nation's memory keeper is to ensure that the public has access to the records of its government as a measure to hold the government accountable to the people. If the past teaches us anything, it is that challenges persist.

The current challenges of the electronic age are big, but they won't be our last. There is no permanent, perfect solution we can find and then relax. It is our job - our responsibility - to meet those challenges, and to continually look ahead to the new ones.

Thank you.

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