About the National Archives

Remarks of Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero at the Association for Library and Information Science Education (ALISE) conference. Dallas, Texas.

January 18, 2012

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?

The Archivist was introduced by Toni Carbo, co-chair of the conference.

Thank you, Toni, for that kind introduction, and my thanks to ALISE for inviting me to speak to your annual conference. What Toni didn’t mention—and just to establish my cred with you—I was an adjunct faculty member at Simmons for many years while I was at MIT, teaching the Literature of the Humanities course.

And for the eight years I was at Duke, I served on the Board of Visitors for SILS at Chapel Hill and served on at least one Dean search committee there. So, it is a particular pleasure to join you this morning.

With just over two years as a Federal bureaucrat, I could regale you this morning with “what they didn’t teach me in library school” anecdotes, or I could depress you with tales of intrigue and stupidity in the theft and destruction of the records of Government, or I could bring you into the fold on the Digital Public Library of America front. All worthy of your time, I think, and happy to hit on any one of them in the Q&A.

Instead, I’d like to share with you what, in broad strokes, I have been up to since leaving my—what now looks like—cushy job at the New York Public Library—and how it impacts what you do, preparing the next generation of information professionals. And ask you in the spirit of the theme of this conference to expand your horizons.

* * * * *

I’ll start by providing some context—who we are and what we do. Describe for you the transformation process currently underway at the National Archives. And end with a short list of the kind of people and competencies I am looking for to help take my Agency into the future.

As you listen, I ask you to think about what you are currently doing to help me in this transformation in terms of the preparation of your students. And, more importantly, what you could be doing that you are not currently—how can we work together to ensure that we are each doing the best we can.

So, who are we? I don’t have to explain to this audience the responsibilities of an archives. But from those outside the inner circle, I get the same kind of questions that Robert Connor, the nation’s first Archivist of the United States (a history faculty member at Chapel Hill) got when his was introduced to strangers—blank stares and eventually "And just what is an archivist?''

Connor spent the early 1930’s assessing the state of the records of government, recruiting staff, building a beautiful John Russell Pope landmark building on Pennsylvania Avenue, and convincing Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet officers—with varying degrees of success--to give up their records.

Our doors opened in 1935 with a mission which has remained unchanged over the years—to collect, protect, and to provide access to the records of government. Thomas Jefferson’s words are as relevant today as they were when he wrote them in a letter from Paris in 1797:

“Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government…that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.”

An informed citizenry is at the heart of what we do—rooted in the belief that citizens have the right to see, examine, and learn from the records that guarantee their rights, document government actions, and tell the story of the nation.

* * * * *

Today that collection translates into about 12 billion sheets of paper, 40 million photographs, miles and miles of video and film, and more than 5.3b electronic records—as you can imagine the fastest growing category of records. To give you some sense of that, we started capturing Presidential electronic mail during the Reagan administration and have 8 million email messages from that White House, 20 million from the Clinton administration, and 210 million from the Bush43 White House.

As extensive as they are, the Bush emails are, to say the least, just the tip of the electronic iceberg. As of the end of September last year, we held over 124 terabytes of records from Congress, Federal agencies and the White House. And we just received 331 terabytes of electronic records from the 2010 Census.

Keep in mind that, as recently as 1989, the total number of electronic records we were responsible for maintaining was just fourteen thousand.

The records are housed in 44 facilities around the country, from Anchorage, Alaska to Atlanta, Georgia—14 Regional Archives, 17 Federal Records Centers, 13 Presidential Libraries—the newest right here in Dallas on the SMU campus which opens in April 2013, the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis—more than 80 million military and civilian personnel files, and our facilities on Pennsylvania Avenue and on the campus of the University of Maryland in College Park.

Because we have the records we have assumed important associated responsibilities regarding classification, declassification, and Freedom of Information Act request facilitation.

* * * * *

Of historic importance, a Presidential Memorandum, issued at the end of November, will significantly change how we do business. It requires each agency to get serious about their records management activities and submit to me and the White House Office of Management and Budget, plans for so doing.

I would be happy to answer any questions you might have about these activities in the QandA—talk about what they don’t teach you in library school! A whole new world for me!

An important part of the National Archives, with which some of you are very familiar, is our Applied Research Division. While it has been, for some time, largely focused on the Electronic Records Archive, we have shifted focus over the past year to concentrate on finding practical solutions to the challenges facing archives and libraries in the digital age.

As part of this new agenda, we have stepped up our research collaborations promoting open innovations with university researchers, including a new explicit focus on practical uses of open source software and technologies—an approach I wish we would have adopted in the ERA project.

Although this shift in emphasis occurred only this past year, this new approach is already yielding exciting results.

For example, we are collaborating with RENCI (the Renaissance Computing Institute) at Chapel Hill on a prototype tool enabling iPads and iPhones to be used in searching and using very large digital collections. This new tool is now available to be downloaded through the web at no cost to the user.

And we are working with National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois on another prototype tool that provides a web accessible, no cost capability to search very large collections of digital images of handwritten records. As I’m sure you know a large portion of our records are in cursive—census records, pension files, etc. And cursive is no longer being taught in the schools.

So, that’s who we are.

* * * * *

The day after his inauguration in 2009, at his very first meeting with his senior staff, President Obama issued the marching orders for his administration:

“Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this Presidency. Our commitment to openness means more than simply informing the American people 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 experience of ordinary Americans…because 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.”

That same day the President issued his Open Government Directive, saying:

“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 systems of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”

Arriving in November of 2009, I embraced that mandate to think about how my agency could weave those three themes—transparency, participation, and collaboration—into everything we do.

It was a unique opportunity to rethink how we do our work and our engagement with our stakeholders. And just to remind you, we have quite a diverse and demanding stakeholder group: the American public, the White House, Congress, open government groups, veterans, genealogists, historians, students, just to name a few.

* * * * *

In October of 2010 my internal task force on agency transformation presented their report, “A Charter for Change,” which articulates six transformational outcomes and a new organizational structure. This was very much a staff driven process and the six “pillars” reflect the input from staff in our 44 facilities and from our various stakeholder groups with whom I have been meeting since I arrived in Washington. Those pillars include:

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—creating a customer-driven organization

Being an Open NARA, with actions transparent both internally and externally.

In January of 2011 my task force on agency transformation issued “Charting the Course,” the implementation plan the transformation.

This second report contains a set of organizational values to which the agency aspires to accomplish the transformation. Reduced to their essence: collaborate, innovate, and learn. Work in new ways with each other and with our stakeholders. Explore new ways of doing the work and exploiting technology. And become a learning organization---learning from each other and those outside of our comfort zone. Creating the capacity to learn and keep changing over time.

Both of these reports are on our website and I encourage you to take a look. They give you a sense of where we are going and I encourage you to think about how you might support this work or what new ideas for programs and research the language elicits for you.

I want to drill down a little on one of the pillars—the customer-driven organization because it is key to our success. We have reorganized our program offices and day-to-day actions around our primary customer groups: agencies, researchers, and visitors.

This dedicated focus will allow NARA staff to provide better service to customers and make it easier for customers to interact with staff. In fact, each of these user groups will have a standing advisory group to provide feedback on how we are doing.

There will be a new focus on providing excellent customer service and the creation of new ways to measure and continually improve those services. And data-based decision making is being pushed closer to the front line—empowering the staff to “dazzle” our users.

* * * * * *

So let me shift now to what all this means in relation to the kind of people we need to be recruiting.

As I have been traveling around the country visiting my staff I have been trying to get into as many archival and library programs as possible to talk with students—to get them excited about working in the Federal Government, especially my agency—and I have shared these thoughts with many of the groups I have visited. If I haven’t visited your program yet, invite me!

What we’re looking for:

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 archival and library science, history and other subject matter areas are important. Above all, we want people who are not stuck in an ivory tower, but 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. 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. And I believe the best way to develop that ability is – not through theory – but hands on experience.

Finally, and this underlies all the other requirements -- We’re looking for people with a strong passion for working with people. A customer-driven organization needs a customer-driven staff.

* * * * *

And this translates into a new set of competencies for archives and archives specialists which we are now rolling out and which I want to share with you this morning. In addition to requiring traditional knowledge of archival principles, practices, and techniques, we require:

The ability to think creatively—problem solving skills. Determining the critical issues, gathering and analyzing information from multiple sources, and targeting the root cause of problems. Generating creative solutions based on a consideration of their impact and implications. Developing and implementing new ideas and ways of thinking to promote efficiency, effectiveness, and productivity.

The ability to achieve results—execution and results. Planning and organizing time to work productively and efficiently and maximizing the quality and quantity of work. Ensuring individual priorities and goals are aligned with team, manager, and agency plans and needs. Increasing and redirecting efforts in the face of challenging obstacles, changing priorities, or increasing demands.

The ability to build relationships—interpersonal skills. Developing and maintaining professional, trusting, and positive working relationships with others at all levels, internal and external to the organization. Initiating communication and partnerships across boundaries, working effectively with diverse teams to drive collective results and advance organizational priorities.

The ability to promote customer service satisfaction. Ensuring internal and/or external customers receive the level of service that builds their trust and confidence, even in difficult or complex situations. Developing and implementing plans to meet customer needs and expectations, removing barriers to delivering customer service and support, and taking the initiative to improve processes based on customer feedback.

The ability to communicate with impact. Conveying information to others clearly and respectfully. Tailoring the amount, style, and content of messages to the needs of the audience and handling and resolving questions and contrary opinions in a positive and constructive manner.

The ability to promote organizational awareness. Acting to support the agency’s mission and function, clarifying and promoting the value and importance of agency programs, policies, procedures, rules, and regulations.

The ability to influence/negotiate with others. Promoting ideas and proposals persuasively. Shaping others’ opinions, convincing or persuading others, and gaining support through own action/examples in an ethical manner. Achieving mutually satisfying agreements in negotiations with others.

The ability to demonstrate business savvy. Applying business principles, methods, and processes (e.g., ROI, cost-benefit analysis) to solve problems. Driving business results by planning and prioritizing activities consistent with organizational goals, using data and evaluating the costs, benefits, and impact on others when making business decisions.

The ability to manage projects. Achieving desired outcomes on projects, on time, and within budget. Designing and planning the project, defining the project workflow, and managing the project team. Controlling and providing project deliverables, optimizing the contribution of the people involved, and making decisions and assessing the impact of those decisions on quality, productivity, schedules, cost, performance, etc.

The ability to conduct research and analysis. Conceptualizes and defines the condition, value, and significance of the information and evaluates the potential future use. Recommending appropriate actions based on analytical finding and conclusions, considering properties, resources, and organization and customer goals.

The ability to lead teams. Leading teams of diverse individuals that can work collaboratively to achieve business objectives; openly communicating, discussing, and working through team objectives; and promoting shared accountability for individual and team performance.

The ability to embrace continual learning. Seeking opportunities to expand knowledge and skills through formal and informal training and feedback. Identifying and levering own strengths and developmental needs and striving to improve own skills. Demonstrating and supporting continual learning and sharing knowledge and expertise with others.

In closing, I leave you with some questions.

What are you doing to prepare your students to thrive in this environment? More importantly, using our customer-driven approach, what are you doing to engage your stakeholders in understanding our needs, creating programs that match those needs, and engaging us in the preparation of the next generation?

Thank you.

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The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
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