Digitization at the National Archives

National Archives and Records Administration

Draft Strategy for Digitizing Archival Materials for Public Access, 2015-2024

September 2014


The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is the Government agency that identifies, preserves and provides access to the U.S. Government's vast holdings of archival materials. These records are selected and preserved to protect Citizens’ rights, ensure government accountability and document the national experience. Our archival holdings number more than 12 billion pages of unique documents in all formats and media, including analog and electronic material, maps, charts, aerial and still photographs, artifacts, and motion picture, sound, and video recordings. The records we hold belong to the public and our mission is to drive openness, cultivate public participation, and strengthen our nation's democracy through public access to high-value government records.

This Strategy for Digitizing Archival Materials for Public Access, 2015-2024 derives from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration Fiscal Year 2014-2018 Strategic Plan and our goal to expand public access to our important historical holdings through digitization. Our Strategic Plan articulates that the National Archives strives: (1) to provide access to the most important records of the Federal government; (2) to establish public access as NARA’s core purpose and (3) to maximize NARA’s value to the Nation. Digitizing NARA's archival and important historical materials is integral to achieving these goals and our continued success. In developing this document we examined NARA’s digitization efforts and activities over the past decade, considering those areas in which we have enjoyed successes, as well as those areas in which there are opportunities for improvement or changes in direction or focus. Furthermore, the insights and comments of NARA’s stakeholders, both internal and external, have been invaluable and are reflected in this document.


This document outlines our strategy to digitize the vast and diverse range of permanent records that are stored and available to the public throughout NARA’s nationwide system, including our Washington, D.C. archives buildings, regional archives facilities, federal record centers, and presidential libraries. Separate from our efforts to address permanent records in our custody that are "born digital," the focus of this strategy is how we plan to make our analog records available to the public online as quickly, efficiently, and cost-effectively as possible.

The strategy thus puts forth a comprehensive, system-wide approach to NARA's digitizing activities.

Digitizing Objectives

NARA has identified the following objectives for digitizing our holdings for public access:

  • Provide online access to an increased number of our holdings.
  • Make our digitized material and metadata available in our online catalog for reuse on other platforms.
  • Maximize our value to the nation by encouraging private industry and others to utilize our digital content in new and creative ways.
  • Enhance preservation of records by reducing wear and tear on the originals. While digitizing for access has some preservation benefits, it is not the same as preservation digitizing. We will not destroy or de-accession any originals that are digitized for access.
  • Provide access to those materials that can no longer be accessed in their original format.
  • Maximize the efficient and effective use of resources to carry out digitization and achieve cost-saving benefits whenever possible. For example, original records that have been digitized may, if appropriate, be relocated to less expensive archival storage locations. Partnerships, where the partner provides resources for digitizing, expand the scale of digitizing beyond what NARA itself can do. Digitizing high-use records improve ease of access, while decreasing the cost of providing access to records.
  • Improve our service to customers consistent with their evolving expectations and with consideration of NARA's available resources.
  • Promote equitable access to Government information by the public.

Current Public Access to Online Content

To ensure that users everywhere can access all of our digitized records, we will continue to make NARA’s Online Catalog (OPA) a hub for discovering NARA's collection of records. OPA is available on our web site, http://www.archives.gov/research/search/, and currently contains series-level descriptions of more than 85% of our permanent records, as well as more than 2,000,000 digitized copies of our holdings.

Although most of our holdings are currently available only at the archival facility in which they are stored, our digitization efforts are continuously increasing public access to our records. Through OPA, our customers, regardless of their proximity to our holdings, will have access to digital copies of NARA records on the web. Furthermore, OPA will provide them with the essential archival context of the digital images.

Definition of Digitizing for Public Access

For the purposes of this document, "digitizing" should be understood not just as the act of scanning an analog document into digital form, but as a series of activities that result in a digital copy being made available to end users via the Internet or other means for a sustained length of time. The activities include:

  • Document identification and selection
  • Document preparation (including preservation, access review and screening, locating, pulling, and refiling)
  • Basic descriptive and technical metadata collection sufficient to allow retrieval and management of the digital copies and to provide basic contextual information for the user
  • Safety of the material being digitized
  • Digital conversion
  • Quality control of digital copies and metadata
  • Providing public access to the material via online delivery
  • Providing online ordering for reproduction services at quality or quantities beyond the capacity of an end user
  • IT infrastructure capable of sustaining long term growth, storage, and preservation of digital copies and metadata
  • A management system that ensures adequate processes and controls to protect the authenticity, reliability, usability and integrity of the digital copies

Approach to Digitizing

NARA will use a combination of five approaches to strive towards our strategic goals and make our holdings available online:

Approach One
To date, digitization partnerships have delivered the vast majority of online content available through OPA. NARA has shown that partnerships with private, public, non-profit, educational, and Government institutions to digitize and make available holdings can be a powerful model.

Partnerships will continue to be a large contributor to our online content. The majority of the records digitized through partnerships have been genealogical in nature. To expand upon this success, NARA will cultivate and attract additional partners from other fields and different business models, which will encourage the digitization of a greater diversity of our collection. These partners may perform digitization themselves, or provide funding for NARA to manage the digitization process, or propose other paradigms. Given the breadth and complexity of NARA’s holdings, we will continue to be flexible and open to multiple types and structures for our partnerships.

To ensure that NARA maintains its public trust, NARA established a set of principles to guide partnership agreements that it continues to follow. These principles are found at the end of this document. See our web site at http://www.archives.gov/digitization/ for a list and description of current partnerships into which NARA has entered formally.

Approach Two
On a daily basis, researchers come to NARA facilities and digitize permanent records. The challenge facing NARA is to leverage the public’s interest and digitization activities to populate our online catalog. NARA will establish and publish standards, such as technical and metadata, for use by the public if they wish to contribute their records to our catalog. NARA will pursue multiple tactics to engage the public to share their digitized copies of our records. These tactics could take many forms, but three possible options are:

  • Establishing a Contributor status for individuals interested in donating images and metadata in the appropriate format to NARA
  • Crowdsourcing digitization by providing scanning stations for use by the public in NARA research rooms
  • Soliciting digitized material from researchers and authors

Approach Three
NARA will encourage agencies to transfer digital copies of analog material they have scanned for inclusion in OPA as access copies. We will support agency digitization efforts by providing defined metadata elements for such transfers. With appropriate standards and metadata, digital access copies of unrestricted archival records will flow efficiently into OPA and will be made available to the public. Electronic records that are transferred to us for permanent retention are outside the scope of this document.

Approach Four
NARA will create a culture of digitization. All internal digitization of unrestricted archival records will be included in the online public access catalog. By incorporating a focus on online access into our work processes, NARA will ensure images can be efficiently added to our catalog. Business processes for archival digitization will incorporate technical and metadata standards as well as a mechanism at the outset to ensure that content can flow seamlessly into OPA. All workflows, including preservation reformatting and vendor and grant recipient digitization, will also be utilized. NARA will also continue to gather and make available on the web archival materials that we have already digitized in the course of performing our agency functions.

Approach Five
NARA will conduct digitizing projects on its own with materials that may not be suitable or appropriate for partnerships. For example, we might digitize our "treasure vault," or at-risk material that only NARA can handle, or high-interest materials for which no partner can be found. These projects could take a variety of forms, with a variety of funding sources. This digitization will also serve as a key preservation action for providing access to fragile and/or high demand records, obsolete formats and deteriorated records. In these cases, digitization ensures that the records will be available in the future.


This strategy does not intend to enumerate specific sets of holdings and identify the order in which they should be digitized. Our holdings are too vast and our users too varied to do that in any meaningful way. Rather, this document establishes, at a high level, basic principles for prioritizing our efforts:

  • Candidates for digitization projects will be prioritized according to established criteria for significance and use.
  • Candidates for digitization projects will be prioritized in order to achieve a demonstrated high priority preservation benefit for the agency.
  • Funding is available or likely to be available and sustainable for the project.

In order to manage and publicize our efforts and to serve as many user groups as possible, NARA will maintain an agency-wide public list of its approved digital projects. Although these projects will be developed and implemented by a variety of NARA units throughout the country, we will strive to manage them as a coherent, coordinated portfolio of products and services. This list also will be available on our web site at www.archives.gov/digitization/.

Process for Feedback

NARA takes its stewardship responsibility very seriously. We recognize that we are entrusted with the care of America's documentary evidence, and that these materials are an invaluable public resource.

The principles embodied in this document are intended as guidelines rather than hard and fast rules. We expect that the plan will undergo revision given the fast pace of technical change and the broadening of our own experience. Accordingly, we will review this document at least annually, and if we make significant changes to our strategy, we will seek public comment on the new version.

NARA Principles for Partnerships to Digitize Archival Materials

  1. Agreements with partners to digitize archival materials will be non-exclusive. That is, we will be open to multiple digitizing partners for different sets of materials; a group of original archival materials will be digitized by only one party.

  2. After an agreed-upon period of time, NARA gains unrestricted rights to the digital copies and the associated metadata transmitted to NARA by the partner, including the right to give or sell unrestricted digital copies in whole or part to other entities. Within resource constraints, NARA will endeavor to make records available in the same year in which they leave embargo.

  3. Partnerships will support the goals of increased access and enhanced preservation of archival materials. NARA considers its partnerships to be one component in furtherance of these goals because partnering will accelerate the digitization of our physical records. However, we will continue to take actions to enable the digitization of records by other means (e.g., funded grants).

  4. To provide for full access and effective preservation, partners will digitize full series or file segments of records, not just selected documents. This will allow for the removal of the original records from research room use. However, when a partnership primarily intends to support the development of educational materials, online exhibits, and other thematic presentations, or in the rare case that a partial series digitization may otherwise support NARA's access and preservation goals, NARA may choose to permit the digitization of selected archival materials rather than full series or file segments of records.

  5. Public access to publicly owned resources will remain free. Partners may develop and charge for value-added features, but access to the digital copies ultimately should be readily accessible and free. NARA acknowledges partners' potential proprietary interest in the digital copies and to value-added features, and also emphasizes its own need to maintain and provide an "archival view" of the materials that allows us to understand the actions of Government (e.g., who created the records? Why? How were the records used? What is their original order? How do they relate to other records of the same person or organization?).

    • Access to the products of the partnership will be free to the public in all NARA's research rooms.

    • Partners shall provide NARA without charge a full set of the digital copies produced by the partnership. These copies shall adhere to NARA's technical specifications. Ultimately, NARA will have unrestricted ownership of these copies, including the right to make these copies freely available online.

    • Partners shall provide NARA without charge a set of metadata generated by the project sufficient to make the digitized copies usable by NARA, and that adheres to NARA's descriptive standards. Ultimately NARA will have unrestricted ownership of this metadata.

  6. NARA will structure partnerships to balance the interests of the American public with the partner's financial investment in the project. There is no single required partnership model.

  7. NARA currently cannot guarantee the authenticity of the digital copies. While NARA expects the partner to take reasonable measures to ensure the accuracy and integrity of the digital copy, including assurances to protect against hacking or other security violation of converted materials, NARA cannot endorse the authenticity of archival materials hosted on a digitizing partner's web site. Although NARA will guarantee that our digital copies have not been altered after we take possession, copies for users requiring certification will be made from the original documents or NARA-created microfilm.

  8. No partnership agreement to digitize access-restricted materials shall permit the release of these materials before an agreed-upon date or specific contingency, nor shall it delay timely public access.

  9. The safety and accessibility of original records will be safeguarded at all times during the digitizing process.

    • Archival materials will be handled according to NARA’s preservation and security standards at all times.

    • NARA makes the final determination whether archival materials are too fragile for digitization through a partnership.

    • To minimize handling wear-and-tear, original materials normally will only be digitized once.

    • Digitization will take place at a NARA facility or at another facility which has been approved by NARA.

    • NARA and partners will seek to minimize the amount of time archival materials will be removed from public access during the digitizing process.

  10. NARA will seek to protect and enhance its own institutional interests, while at the same time respecting the interests of our users and our partners.

    • NARA makes the final determination regarding whether materials may be digitized or not.

    • Any use of the NARA brand must be approved in writing by NARA.

    • In posting NARA records in digital content a partner will clearly indicate that the records are at the National Archives.

    • Unless otherwise stated in writing, the partner shall pay all direct costs associated with the digitizing partnerships, to include project management, document identification, collections security (including Federally-required staff, contractor, and volunteer background investigations), document preparation (including access review and preservation activities), metadata collection and quality control, data management, digital conversion, and partner's delivery, marketing, and maintenance. NARA may also seek partner assistance in defraying NARA's own delivery, marketing, and maintenance costs.

    • NARA does not allow for wholesale downloading of a large or complete body of digital content on our web site, both to protect the proprietary interests of our partner in the digital copy and to safeguard NARA's computer systems.

    • The partner may not claim copyright in the digital copy.

  11. NARA will publicize and seek written comment on proposed partnerships when there is an embargo period before they are signed.

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