About the National Archives

Archivist's Speeches: before the Subcommittee on Technology Policy, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations, and the Census of the Committee on Government Reform U.S. House of Representatives July 8, 2003

Archivist of the United States

before the
Subcommittee on Technology Policy, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations, and the Census of the Committee on Government Reform
U.S. House of Representatives

July 8, 2003

I am John W. Carlin, Archivist of the United States, and I wish to thank you, Chairman Putnam, for holding this important hearing today on the subject of Electronic Records Management. It is a pleasure to be with you, Congresswoman Miller, Congressman Clay, and other distinguished members to discuss a subject of obviously great importance to the National Archives and all of us as Americans. I feel at home here today. Your knowledge of technology has been clearly demonstrated even in your brief tenure as Chairman and I know that as a former Secretary of State, your vice chairman has very specific experience in this area. As for Congressman Clay, in the spirit of full disclosure, I go to work every day on the campus of his alma mater, the University of Maryland, with which the National Archives enjoys a very good relationship and a very special partnership in the area of electronic records.

Defining the Challenges of Electronic Records
As you all know, the rapid evolution of information technology has produced huge volumes of diverse and complex digital records. These electronic records pose the biggest challenge ever to record keeping in the Federal Government. When you combine the rate of technological obsolescence with the explosive number of electronic records being created by the Government every day, then you can begin to imagine the challenge that we face.

The very fact of this committee hearing, and your opening statement, Mr. Chairman, demonstrate that this committee is well aware of both the character and the significance of the challenges posed by increasing reliance on digital technology. But let me highlight the uniqueness and the intensity of the challenge that the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) faces in this arena.

In the National Archives and the Presidential libraries, NARA is responsible for preserving and providing sustained access to records of all three branches of the Federal Government. We share the common challenge entailed by rapid changes in the technology. This challenge is two-edged: On the one side, rapid obsolescence makes it difficult to maintain old hardware, software, and digital formats; on the other, progress in technology offers better solutions that offer the possibility of improving service to customers. In NARA's case, this challenge is magnified by the need to preserve and deliver authentic records for generations of Americans who will not be born for a hundred years or more.

The ordinary person faces the dilemma of deciding whether to buy a new device today or wait some months to take advantage of reduced prices and improved performance. So, not only does NARA have to deliver solutions critically needed to accomplish its mission, but we must also ensure that those solutions do not create future difficulties, recognizing that 5, 10, and more years in the future, Americans will want to use the best available technologies to access the records of their Government.

The scope of NARA's responsibilities compounds the challenge. Under the provisions of the Clinger-Cohen Act and other statutes, each agency is required to acquire information technology that supports its core mission functions, reduces costs, improves effectiveness, and makes maximum use of commercial, off-the-shelf technology. NARA's challenge is not just to use the best available information technology for accomplishing its core mission but also to cope successfully with the results of all other agencies' selections of technologies that optimally support their missions.

The historically valuable electronic records that come to the National Archives and the Presidential libraries come from applications deployed across the entire Federal Government. They can be in virtually any digital format—not only those that result from common end-user applications like word processing and e-mail but also from web sites, databases, geographic information systems, digital photography and motion video, computer assisted engineering and manufacturing applications, from laboratory simulations, satellite observations, deep space probes, medical information, and many others. Combining the variety of types of information that are produced and collected in the conduct of the Government's business with the recognition the digital formats in which the information is recorded change as rapidly as the software used to create and store it, leads to the conclusion that NARA needs to cope with thousands of different digital formats.

Initial Progress to Meet the Challenge
Within the past decade there has been significant progress in developing software products which enable agencies to apply records management discipline to electronic records that are typically produced on individual desktops. The Department of Defense has developed a program for certifying these products as complying with Federal records management requirements. I'm pleased to note that NARA has worked closely with the Defense Department on their Standard 5015.2 and has endorsed its use by all Federal agencies. However, implementing such a product is a time- and resource-intensive effort. As a result, agencies are trying to manage many records in paper filing systems, despite the fact that some of the new electronic formats cannot be rendered well, or in some cases at all, in a paper environment.

Through the e-Government Electronic Records Management (ERM) Initiative, NARA, working with its agency partners, is providing guidance on electronic records management applicable Government-wide and enabling agencies to transfer their permanent electronic records to NARA in a variety of data types and formats.

Achieving Government-wide ERM requires a multiyear effort by all agencies. Differences in agency cultures and information technology infrastructures today make even an agency-wide implementation of ERM a challenging task. Moreover, as previously mentioned, the existing technology solutions for managing electronic records are not yet mature, and do not allow seamless integration into business processes. Clearly, for e-Government to be sustained over time, electronic records must be managed consistently within an agency as well as throughout the Government. We must not look only to solve the technological problems we face but also to ensure that management, preservation, and reliable access to essential electronic records is built into the fabric of the next generation's national information infrastructure.

NARA's Statutory Responsibilities
The National Archives and Records Administration's statutory responsibilities relating to electronic records management are rooted in the Federal Records Act, which is codified under Title 44 of the United States Code. Under 44 U.S.C. 2904(a) the Archivist of the United States, as head of the National Archives and Records Administration, "shall provide guidance and assistance to Federal agencies with respect to ensuring adequate and proper documentation of the policies and transactions of the Federal Government and ensuring proper records disposition." Subsection 2904(c) specifies ways in which the Archivist carries out these guidance and assistance responsibilities.

The Archivist also has responsibilities under section 3303a to approve the disposal of any temporary Federal record and under section 2107 to take into the National Archives of the United States Federal records that "have sufficient historical or other value to warrant their continued preservation by the United States Government." And these statutory responsibilities apply to electronic records as well as other formats. Section 3301 includes in the definition of Federal records "machine readable materials, or other documentary materials, regardless of physical form or characteristics."

Title 44 further specifies the kinds of records that Federal officials must create and preserve with NARA's guidance. Section 3101 stipulates that: the head of each Federal agency shall make and preserve records containing adequate and proper documentation of the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, and essential transactions of the agency and designed to furnish the information necessary to protect the legal and financial rights of the Government and of persons directly affected by the agency's activities. Definitions in Section 2901 extend recordkeeping requirements to elements of the legislative and judicial branches, as well as executive branch agencies, and Section 2203 requires similarly that the President of the United States "assure that the activities, deliberations, decisions, and policies that reflect the performance of his constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties are adequately documented . . ."

Thus, NARA shares responsibility with Federal officials throughout the Government for "adequacy of documentation— for seeing that certain kinds of records are created, kept, and made accessible. In Title 44 NARA has an additional and unique role to file centrally and to publish Federal laws and administrative regulations, the President's official orders, and the structure, functions, and activities of Federal agencies through the daily Federal Register. And in Section 2504 NARA, through the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, has the responsibility for making grants to manage, preserve, edit, and publish the papers of "outstanding citizens of the United States," and "documentary sources significant to the history of the United States." The Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), which administratively is part of NARA, is responsible to the President for policy oversight of the Government-wide information security classification system and the National Industrial Security Program.

NARA's Unique Mission: Ready Access to Essential Evidence
All this we have summed up in a simple, succinct statement of mission that both reflects our statutory mandates and expresses our sense of their significance:

The mission of the National Archives and Records Administration is to ensure, for the Citizen and the Public Servant, for the President and the Congress and the Courts, ready access to essential evidence.

This statement acknowledges our statutory responsibility for records in all three branches of the Federal Government. The statement acknowledges our statutory responsibility to help Federal officials manage records effectively for their own use as well as for the use of the public. And the statement acknowledges our commitment to making it as convenient as we can for officials and the public to get access to what sections 3101 and 3301 call "evidence" of "essential transactions" of the Federal Government.

The statutes quoted above speak of protecting rights, of maintaining adequate and proper documentation of what officials responsible to the public do, and of preserving records of historical and other value. Accordingly, we have defined "essential evidence" in our mission statement not just as documents needed for court cases, but as material generated by or received by the Federal Government, that documents: the rights of citizens, the actions of Federal officials, and the national experience.

Documentation of the rights of citizens means material that enables them to establish their identities, protect their rights, and claim their entitlements. Documentation of the actions of Federal officials means material that enables them to explain past decisions, form future policy, and be accountable for consequences. Documentation of the national experience means material of importance for understanding and evaluating the effects of Federal actions.

Essential evidence is not limited in form. It can include: written paper records; maps; drawings and pictorial materials of documentary value; records generated in multiple formats by computers; artifacts as well as papers in Presidential library collections; and donated manuscripts, Federal Register publications, and other materials that help document rights and entitlements, Federal actions, and historical experience.

We use the term "essential evidence" to sum up, not to supplant, statutory definitions of records or traditional archival concepts. Recognizing that we cannot save everything, nor need to do so, our commitment to essential evidence in our mission statement underscores the particular importance we attach to safeguarding, within the body of Federal and Presidential records, those materials, informational as well as evidentiary, in technical archival terms, that document the identities, rights, and entitlements of citizens, the actions for which Federal officials are accountable, and the effects of those actions on shaping the national experience.

NARA alone is the archives of the Government of the United States, responsible for safeguarding records of all three branches of the Federal Government. The Smithsonian Institution maintains archives of its own as well as artifacts from a wide range of sources, on a wide range of subjects, including American history, and the Library of Congress preserves private manuscript and pictorial collections, as well as books, of an equally wide range. But neither the Library of Congress nor the Smithsonian has a mandate to protect Federal and Presidential records or exercises responsibility for seeing that the activities of the three branches of the Federal Government are accessibly documented. Historians and other researchers make use of the holdings of NARA, the Smithsonian, and the Library of Congress, but there is virtually no overlap in what we statutorily have the responsibility to collect and preserve. NARA alone is mandated to provide ready access to essential records of what the Federal Government does—why, how, and with what consequences. Our mandate is unique.

Records Matter
Many of the records we hold have survived hundreds of years, but the same cannot be said of electronic records. As we know all too well, records created just a few years ago are already unreadable by today's technology. It is imperative that we find a way to authentically preserve and provide access to electronic records for as long as they are needed. Electronic records, like records in traditional forms, are critical for the effective functioning of a democracy. If they are not managed effectively throughout their lifecycle, vital records of the U.S. Government will be lost.

Thanks to the leadership of Chairman Davis, Congressman Turner, and others, the role of the Archives in e-Government was furthered strengthened by our very visible role in the e-Government Act, now Public Law 107-347. We were pleased to be included in the Interagency Committee on Government Information and look forward to working with OMB and the CIO Council on the important issues of cataloging of information and access to electronic information. As the Archivist of the United States, I am required to issue policies based on recommendations from that committee and the area of standards that we will talk a great deal about as our hearing goes on, is central to that policy requirement.

Currently we are working to address the challenges of electronic records in a comprehensive and strategic fashion, aiming to both preserving electronic records for the future, while at the same time striving to make effective electronic records management part of the infrastructure of e-Government. The capability to create and maintain trustworthy records is an essential component of all government activities. Federal agencies require trustworthy records to meet their legal and internal business needs. Their business partners—whether an individual member of the public, a business, or another governmental entity—rely on the Government to have trustworthy records. Records management is the tool and process for providing such trustworthy records.

In a few moments, Mr. L. Reynolds Cahoon, the Assistant Archivist for Human Resources and Information, will give you details on our programs and initiatives designed to effectively manage electronic records throughout their lifecycle.

In closing, I would like thank you all again for your interest in electronic records and the challenges they pose for agencies, the Government as a whole, and our nation. The records of our country have played a vital role in our history, and it is imperative that we find solutions for electronic records. For I'm sure you will all agree with me when I say that records matter . . . for our citizens, our government and the future of our democracy.

Thank You.