About the National Archives

Archivist's Speeches: at the Annual Meeting of NAGARA (1998)

John W. Carlin
Archivist of the United States

at the Annual Meeting of NAGARA
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

June 9, 1998

Good morning to all of you, and thank you for the opportunity to speak at your annual meeting for the fourth consecutive year. One of the first things I did as the new Archivist of the United States in the summer of 1995 was come to NAGARA's annual meeting in Raleigh. And I've kept coming to meetings of NAGARA because they make me feel that all the trials and tribulations of the rest of the year are worthwhile. Here I get to be with people who understand as well as I do how important it is to take care of the records of government whether local, state, or federal; how critical records are for government accountability in a democracy; and how vital good recordkeeping is for maintaining public trust in our public institutions.
Over the past year I've spent hours at the White House explaining the need to support what NARA is trying to achieve. I've spent hours in the Congress explaining the value of strong recordkeeping and archival programs. I've spent time with the press explaining recordkeeping needs. And I've made a series of visits to top-level executives of federal agencies to explain why they should support their records officers. Here, I don't have to explain any of that, and it really feels good.

Do I regret having joined you in taking on this kind of challenge? No I don't. This is still the best job I've ever had. When I came as the new head of NARA to your meeting three years ago, I knew we faced tough times. And I said to you, "Tough times can destroy an agency, or they can stimulate its creativity. Change can overwhelm an institution or open its eyes to new opportunities. We can withdraw within boundaries, or find ways out of the boxes that inhibit us . . . at NARA, I will be looking at our problems, but I also will be looking at our possibilities."

Well, since then I've looked a lot at both. And they've looked back at me. And it hasn't been easy to keep the possibilities in view amidst all the problems. But as I also said to you in 1995, "Retreat is not an option for your institution or mine." Records "are too important to the citizens of our country, whether they know it or not. We document what our governments do. We document the rights and entitlements of the American people. We document the history of the United States. We may need to find new ways to do it, but we must continue to get it done."

And have we been finding new ways to do it at NARA? Have we been getting anything done? To read some of the recent press, to listen to comments even by some of our own allies among archivists and historians, you'd think we hadn't moved an inch. You'd think we'd even fallen back into some dark hole where we pretend electronic records don't exist and amuse ourselves by burning Nixon tapes. And in a way, I can understand. The steps we've been taking to deal with such things as the complexities of modern record formats are not readily visible, and they certainly aren't sensational enough to win press headlines. And though we've taken steps to improve communications, we know we're not communicating yet as well as we should.

Which is something I'd like to work on right now. I want you to know exactly what efforts your National Archives and Records Administration is making to move forward into the future. NAGARA supported my nomination to be Archivist of the United States. Your leaders have helped me understand the issues that we're all confronting. And I feel more than grateful. I feel a special responsibility to you to succeed in making this nation's archives and records administration an institution in which we can all take pride. This morning I'd like to give you a brief update on what we're doing to get there, including steps that are, or are going to be, controversial.

Everything we're doing stems from the Strategic Plan we put together as the first order of business of my administration. Some agencies produce plans for public consumption, then stash them in a back room in between the trash can and the paper shredder. I live with ours every day, and it guides everything we do. Ours is a real plan, all forty-eight pages of it. It identifies our mission, our vision, and our values. It lays out four major goals and nearly forty strategies for reaching them. It explains how we're going to know whether we've reached them, and it sets up measurable targets for achievement along the way. The plan is more than a road map; it's the compass we use to show us clearly where we're going, and if you haven't seen it, I'll gladly send you a copy, or you can look it up on our Web site at http://www.archives.gov/nara/vision/naraplan.html.

One of the three broad goals of the Strategic Plan is the following: All records will be preserved in appropriate space for use as long as needed. That's quite a commitment. What do we mean by "appropriate space"? We mean three things, as spelled out in the plan:

space sufficient in quantity for current and future records holdings;
appropriate environmental storage conditions for all of NARA's
   current and future archival holdings; and
space that facilitates researcher access to records.

As many of you know, we have a superb state-of-the-art archival facility in College Park, Maryland, that provides appropriate conditions for records preservation and researcher use. But many of our other facilities do not. Most are full or nearly full right now. Only a fraction of the archival records in those facilities are in space that has all of the appropriate environmental controls. And space in many of these facilities is not good for staff or researchers.
Facilities in which we have space problems include the original National Archives Building in Washington, our National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, our Washington National Records Center, and the regional archives and federal records centers we maintain from Boston to San Bruno and from Atlanta to Anchorage. They are bursting at the seams, and the space limits are forcing us to leave some archival records in the warehouse space of the federal records centers. Lack of space is even affecting appraisal as we hold off decisions until we can get more archival-quality space for storing records of continuing value. We need more storage space for records of both short-term and long-term value, and we need better space to safeguard the more valuable records and make them readily accessible. Also we need to consider where as well as how we can best serve our customers nationwide. Our current spread of facilities was developed to fit the regional system of records centers we inherited from the General Services Administration, not to meet archival and research needs.

Because we are out of space or will soon be out of space throughout the regional archives and records centers nationwide; because we need to plan for the long-term storage of military service records currently housed in St. Louis; because we are moving to make our records center program totally reimbursable; because we need better space for archival records in the field; and because we are no longer constrained by GSA requirements, we have a new opportunity to review what kind of facilities we need and where they should be. Accordingly, in March, I established a Space Planning Team to examine our current space use and make recommendations for improvements. The parameters for the study are to look at our regional facilities, the Washington National Records Center, and the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. We have no need to address Archives II since it was built only five years ago to meet archival storage and preservation needs in the Washington area. We also have no need to include the old National Archives Building in this study because we completed a requirements study for that building in 1985 and updated it just recently in 1997. That requirements study, along with an ongoing study for reencasing the Charters of Freedom, provide the basis for our plan to renovate the National Archives Building, and we are proceeding to seek support for this renovation project.

For our regional facilities, we are building upon a study that was completed in 1993. But I have charged the Space Team to look beyond the limited scope of that study. Our current planning study has four main goals:

  1. to increase the quantity of space so we can continue to add records to our holdings: let me repeat—more space, not less;
  2. to improve the quality of space, particularly for records that need to be preserved for generations to come: put simply—archival records in archival space;
  3. to provide more access to the records for more people; and,
  4. to do all this in a cost-effective manner.

The Space Team and I recognized at the outset that to plan effectively we had to consult users of NARA record holdings, which we are already doing. Today, right here in Philadelphia where we have two records facilities, I and others from NARA will conduct an open meeting to which the public has been invited. This is one of many such meetings in which we are asking the public to express interests and concerns that would help us clarify our understanding of what kinds of facilities we should have, where they should be located, what services users need, and what amenities should be available to researchers. And anyone interested can learn about our space planning from a Web site where we report on what we're doing. You can access it, again, through http://www.archives.gov/about_us/ strategic_planning_and_reporting/space_plan.html, and you can provide recommendations by using our e-mail address: Contact NARA. And we are seeking other ways as well to get national input. For example, not long ago I personally solicited views on our space planning from members of the National Genealogical Society at its annual conference in Denver, and I will continue meeting with the leadership of the NGS, the Federation of Genealogical Societies, and their Joint Records Access and Preservation Committee.
In our Strategic Plan, we have identified consolidation of facilities as a possible strategy for efficiently meeting our space needs. Unsurprisingly, responses at our public meetings have sometimes been heated, particularly from people who feared we would close their regional facility. For example, Chinese Americans in northern California are anxious to keep in the Bay Area certain records now in our San Bruno facility that pertain to their immigration, which I can well understand. And also understandably, some genealogists who live in locations where we now have facilities do not want to lose them. Clearly the records most used by genealogists at our regional facilities are on microfilm, which we have pledged to keep available for use in any location where we now have microfilm services—in fact I'm hoping we can expand locations providing microfilm services. Nonetheless, some genealogists, among others, want to retain the access to original records that they now have in NARA facilities near them. We must listen and consider their needs, just as we must consider the needs of users who are remote from our current facilities. Now is our opportunity to assess our nationwide network of archival facilities including planning for the addition of an archival facility to house the huge volume we hold of military personnel records.

How to meet the needs of all users and potential users of archives, while also finding adequate space both for storing and preserving records so that they can be used, will not be easy, and we hope you, the professionals in this business, will contribute suggestions. But the bottom line that everybody must recognize is what our Strategic Plan recognizes: the current situation has to be fixed. Nobody is going to be able to use records that are lost because we lack space to store and preserve them. Our space planning is a major and essential step toward meeting the challenge.

Let me go now to another area in which we're making progress. Another of the four major goals of our Strategic Plan is this: Essential evidence will be created, identified, appropriately scheduled, and managed for as long as needed. That means better records management. That means dealing effectively with electronic records. And that means attending to records throughout their life cycle, from original creation through ultimate disposition.

When I came to NARA, it was like the Balkans. We had units concerned only with agency guidance on records management. We had units concerned only with temporary records in records centers. We had units concerned only with records accessioned into archives. And on top of that, there was duplication, competition, and conflict. Already we have begun carrying out the strategy in our Strategic Plan for fixing that. The second major order of business of my administration has been to reorganize the staff thoroughly.

Our units now deal, not with records at different points in the life cycle, but with bodies of records, in Washington and in the regions, throughout their life cycle. NARA administrators now make decisions taking into consideration requirements for all kinds of records use as well as requirements for agency management and records storage. Moreover, we have shifted a lot of resources towards the previously neglected front end of the records cycle, which is critical in dealing with electronic records, because they can be so unstable and vulnerable that they may never make it to the archives or even a records center. We've already reallocated some positions for records management in Washington and the regions, and if we receive funds requested for fiscal year 1999, we'll add more.

Let me repeat: we have made adjustments to deal more effectively with records in the electronic era. And we are taking other steps including addressing needed changes to General Records Schedule 20.

NARA promulgated GRS 20 a few years ago to provide guidelines to federal agencies on the disposition of certain electronically generated records. The most discussed provisions permitted agencies to dispose of electronic-mail and word-processing records once they had been copied to a paper, microfilm, or electronic recordkeeping system for management and retention. In a court case brought against certain federal agencies, including NARA, by several plaintiffs, including organizations of historians, a federal judge declared GRS 20 to be "null and void." He said it gave agencies too much latitude to destroy electronic records, particularly those that document program activity rather than administrative detail. The Department of Justice is appealing that ruling—in fact it filed its brief this week—but on grounds that the ruling contravenes the Archivist's legal authority to make such determinations and issue such guidance. Concerning the content of GRS 20, we ourselves know that changes are needed. As Mike Miller, our Modern Records Program director and a member of your board, has stated, GRS 20 was never intended as a final solution for the disposition of electronic records when it was promulgated back in 1988. NARA should require federal agencies to schedule all programmatic records, for example, and we will, consistent with making the transition in ways that federal agencies can implement.

To work on this problem, I created an Electronic Records Work Group combining NARA staff specialists with federal agency records professionals experienced in dealing with electronic records. To help the group, I also engaged consultants from outside the government with electronic records expertise, and NAGARA has members in all three categories. This Work Group has solicited broader public comment as well through a series of open meetings, and has reached tentative conclusions. These, too, you will find on a home page you can access through our Web site: http://www.archives.gov/records/grs20/index.html. Moreover, we will publish the Electronic Record Work Group's preliminary report in the Federal Register for public comment, which we truly want. I really urge you to share comments with us if you have them. Dealing with electronic records is a problem for all of us, and we can learn from each other as NARA moves towards helping agencies effectively manage their electronic records.

I am encouraged by the Work Group's progress and believe that we really can achieve what I and the court and plaintiffs all want—to preserve electronic as well as other records appropriately, for the public and the government, with retention and disposition schedules that federal agencies can and will use. I am looking forward to getting the group's final recommendations.

But that's far from all we are doing to deal with electronic records.

NARA is helping develop practical approaches to electronic records challenges through additional partnerships. For example, we are working with the Corps of Engineers on an imaging system, with the State Department on accessioning electronic cable files, with other agencies on electronic records declassification, and with the Department of Defense on a project of particularly great promise.

Until very recently, there has been no software available for electronic recordkeeping that adequately fits the federal government's needs, mainly because of a lack of functional requirements that software developers could use as a standard. Several years ago, the Department of Defense began to develop standards for electronic recordkeeping. With assistance from NARA and others, the Defense Department has now developed functional requirements for Records Management Application software. The DoD has established a certification and testing service for judging whether particular software meets these requirements. I have entered into a formal agreement to work with the Defense Department on this, which should also bring progress.

Additionally, the Strategic Plan that we adopted calls for us to reexamine our entire process for appraising and scheduling the disposition of records. Our plan commits us to "work with agencies to make our current scheduling and appraisal processes more effective and timely." To help meet that goal, the plan specifies, among NARA's targets for fiscal year 1999, that we will "re-engineer the processes by which federal records overall are identified, appraised, scheduled, and tracked." And we are now laying the groundwork for this major undertaking, and certainly the problems we had with the naval research records this past year only underlined the importance of this effort.

Another of the major goals in NARA's Strategic Plan is this: Essential evidence will be easy to access regardless of where it is or where users are for as long as needed. If you think that's just rhetoric, then, again, go to your computer and pull up our Web site. From there, you can now get to the full text of the daily Federal Register, which NARA publishes and has put online, and also, just recently, we completed putting up all 200 volumes of the Code of Federal Regulations. From our home page, you can also get to our Online Exhibit Hall, giving you access to documentary exhibits without visiting our facilities. From our home page you can also get to the JFK Assassination Records Collection Database, where you will find records recently released by the Assassination Records Review Board. You can also get to our Electronic Access Project, which in the coming year will have put up more than 100,000 of our most interesting and requested photographic and textual records for online access. In fact, a new batch just went online Tuesday. More than 69,000 images are now available, including, just to whet your appetite, a collection of Albert Einstein letters and historical photographs from our Mathew Brady collection. And just as important as making images available is what we are learning in the process about all the complexities and limitations of digitization.

But most important of all, you can access online our NARA Archival Information Locator. "NAIL" is our affectionate shorthand for it. It's a pilot database for the Archival Research Catalog (ARC) that eventually will become a complete catalog of the entire holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration. Researchers will be able to see on their home or office computer screens what we have of use to them and where we have it. Developing ARC is a key NARA strategy for making more access available to more people. Already within NAIL you will find 348,000 records descriptions. Obviously we are not standing still in extending access anymore than we are standing still in dealing with electronic records and seeking appropriate space. And ARC is just the first piece of the records life-cycle system we intend to build.

But, you may say, isn't NARA denying access by burning up Nixon tapes and otherwise conspiring with the estate of the late President? Well, I have seen the headlines, too, and they aren't accurate. Here are the facts on all our Nixon issues.

At the time of Watergate, the federal government seized White House documents including the famous Nixon tapes, which subsequently came to the National Archives. The federal courts have consistently ruled that the Nixon estate must be compensated for that "taking," as they call it. This is not our idea, and we are not involved in the deliberations about how much money the government may have to pay the Nixons. The courts, not NARA, decided the Nixons must be paid, and the government, not NARA, will be making the payment.

NARA is involved, however, in carrying out a different court order, which deals with the Nixon tapes. We are required to process those tapes to determine which of the recorded conversations, under law, can be made public, and which cannot. We have been releasing, on a regular schedule, the "public" portions. But the Nixon estate alone is entitled to the portions that are "private and personal." These include recorded conversations of the President about family matters, and conversations about politics in which President Nixon was speaking as head of his party rather than in his official capacity as head of the government. Right now, under court order, we are attempting to determine how best to separate out those portions in the original tapes from the rest.

In the meantime, as part of our compliance with the court order, we recently shredded and burned some material of no use to anyone. In the process of reviewing the tapes, our staff has maintained a finding aid—a log, characterizing conversations on the tapes. Over the years, we have made extracts and copies of parts of that log for processing purposes. Included were duplicates of log sections containing "private and personal" material protected by law from public disclosure. All those extra copies of the log were what we recently shredded and burned. We did not destroy a single Nixon tape, nor any kind of Nixon record that wasn't a duplicate. We continue to possess intact our comprehensive log of the tapes, pending final determination of how best to comply with the court's order.

At the same time, we continue to process for public release Nixon tapes that the law permits us to release. There will be another release this coming December, following a schedule in an agreement that I negotiated not long after becoming Archivist. This agreement has been accelerating the release of Nixon tapes. That is what we are trying to do under the access goal of our Strategic Plan. And I hope you will remember, when more headlines come, that I am doing everything I can to make Nixon material accessible within the limits of court orders and the law.

Earlier, I said I'd been working hard to communicate with the White House and the Congress on the importance of records. Let me conclude on a note of hope about our ability to finance continued progress in implementing our Strategic Plan. As I have reported to you in my column in NAGARA Clearinghouse, President Clinton approved my request for a substantial increase in NARA's operating expense budget to include in the federal budget he proposed to the Congress for fiscal year 1999.

The initial Congressional response has been encouraging. The House Appropriations Committee has approved a total of more than $232 million for NARA's fiscal year 99. This adds to our base operating budget, increases funds for important programs, provides additional funds for some facility repairs, and includes special funding for work converting computer programs to handle the change to the year 2000. Additionally, the House Committee approved $6 million—a half-million-dollar increase—for grants made by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), which I chair and NARA administers. The package for NARA including NHPRC totals $238.6 million, which is $7.8 million less than President Clinton's request, but is $13.3 million more than NARA and the NHPRC received in total appropriations for fiscal year 1998. And I am hopeful that similarly encouraging Senate action will soon come. If a substantial increase makes it all the way through Congressional action to the President's desk, the budget boost would enable NARA to accelerate progress of the kinds I have been describing. The proposed increase would make possible additional steps toward preserving electronic records, improving Government records management, expanding public access to records, and carrying out the business process reengineering I described. The proposed addition for NHPRC would also mean more grant opportunities for NAGARA members' projects, particularly state and local archival and records management programs, and research-and-development projects on electronic records. The increase proposed would not solve all our problems, but it would enable us to take much bigger steps toward reaching goals in our Strategic Plan.

Included in those goals is something else of major importance in our Strategic Plan—alternative sources of funding for our records center program. As I mentioned earlier, we've requested funding for fiscal year 1999 for a records center reimbursable program. Right now, some agencies of the federal government with requirements for services for active records reimburse us for storing and providing retrieval service. Starting in the year 2000, the Office of Management and Budget in the White House has instructed all federal agencies to do so. Interestingly, I think we were the last major free interagency service. And receiving reimbursement for these services will not only provide some budget relief but will help us improve the services we provide for agencies. Start-up funds for our reimbursable program are requested in our FY 1999 budget request.

Securing White House support for our budget request was not easy, and I am fighting hard now to secure support in the Congress. I am grateful to good friends in and out of NAGARA who are helping us meet the challenges we face. It is incredibly important that you understand what we are doing right, and that you feel comfortable offering constructive criticism about what we can do better. NAGARA is a great organization, and a specially important one to NARA and to me personally. I will be staying on to be with you at this meeting, and I hope you have a very successful conference and that the working partnership between NARA and NAGARA will continue to grow.

Let me finish, however, by returning to what makes both my efforts and yours worthwhile. Every time we help agencies of government, at all levels, keep better records; every time we provide ready access to records that are useful and beneficial to people; every time we come up with records that help people document their identities and verify their entitlements to rights and benefits as citizens, we are contributing to the health of democracy itself. Every time our records enable people to analyze the actions of their government and hold their officials responsible; every time we help people figure out what really happened in our history and assess the meaning of it—I repeat, every time we do those things, we are contributing to the health of democracy itself. And at a time when voter turnout indicates voter apathy, and polls are showing that Americans' faith in their institutions is low, it is more important than ever that Americans be able to count on the agencies that are supposed to be zealously and impartially documenting their rights, the actions of their governments, and what is significant in their history. At all levels—national, state, and local—records matter enormously in the life of our democratic nation.

That's why I keep going in the effort to improve recordkeeping. And I hope you will, too.

Thank you very much.