About the National Archives

Archivist's Speeches: Address to the Federation of Genealogical Societies (1999)

John W. Carlin
Archivist of the United States

Address to the Federation of Genealogical Societies
St. Louis, Missouri

August 12, 1999

It's a great pleasure to be with all of you, as I have made it a point to keep personally in close touch with the genealogical community and its leadership, and this gives me another welcome opportunity.

I'm grateful for this opportunity also because I have a lot to tell you about things we're doing to provide better service to genealogists. And I'm pleased to report recent evidence that our efforts are appreciated. Just the other day I got an e-mail message signed by, quote, "DearMYRTLE, Daily Genealogy Columnist." The message said: "Dear sirs, Your excellent presentation of the National Archives Digital Classroom has won DearMYRTLE's Best of the Internet for Genealogists Award this week." If "DearMYRTLE" is here, I want to say that we are proud of our on-line resources, and we thank you very much for your award!

Earlier this summer, I participated in a dramatic event that should warm the hearts of all of us who care about records. It took place in the magnificent rotunda of the National Archives Building in Washington. More than a hundred prominent citizens had assembled—government officials, officers of corporations, heads of foundations, and representatives of the Congress. Music played; in came a uniformed color guard from the Armed Services; and not far behind, the President of the United States and the First Lady.

They were all there to celebrate America's great Charters of Freedom—the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights—and to kickoff publicly the campaign for NARA's "Charters of Freedom Project." Already, the Congress and the Administration are giving us money to renovate the building that has been the Charters' home for nearly fifty years. The Pew Foundation has added funds to help finance a re-encasement of the Charters so that we can continue to display them safely for future generations. And on this occasion, the AT&T Corporation pledged a million dollars to help us preserve the Charters in a meaningful educational setting.

If we raise enough additional money, visitors in the 21st century will not only see these documents; they'll also understand, from exhibits, programs, and educational and research opportunities, what the Charters mean in American life.

And I was really struck by the fact that all these prominent people had come there to join with us to ensure preservation and access for these three records. And I thought, now if only I could get everyone also to recognize the value of the other millions of records in our custody! For as Emily Mitchell recently wrote about the National Archives in Time magazine, and I quote:


On one side of the building are the grand documents of democracy . . . On the other side are the commonplace but invaluable records of the 272 million people who make up that democracy: census schedules from 1790 through 1920, military records from the Revolution to the start of World War I, passport applications going back to 1795, documents from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, [and] ships' passenger lists. 1

Genealogists, happily, do recognize the value of the broad range of records we preserve in addition to the Great Charters. And so did Time magazine. As you know, since I issued the NARA Strategic Plan in 1996, we have been working to make a reality of our mission to provide ready access to those records that document the rights of American citizens, the actions of Federal officials, and the national experience. And I'm pleased to have this opportunity to share some details of our progress.

As many of you know, we have an Electronic Access Project, which was funded in 1995 through the support of Senator Bob Kerrey. This project included a digitization effort, which we completed this past February. Even more importantly, we are building an Archival Research Catalog (ARC), which will eventually provide electronic access to descriptions of all the records in all of NARA's facilities nationwide.

We plan to complete the building of ARC next summer, and already, genealogists who have computer access to the Internet from home, office, or library can call up through our Web site more than 400,000 descriptions of records in NARA's custody. These descriptions are in our prototype catalog, the NARA Archival Information Locator: "NAIL" for short.

Information now on-line includes military service records for the "Rough Riders," appointments of U.S. Marshals in Arizona, and native American records such as applications for enrollment in the Five Civilized Tribes in Indian Territory. Also at NARA's NAIL site, in addition to records descriptions, researchers can call up more than 123,000 digital images, which range from Mathew Brady photographs to Albert Einstein letters, and from Civil War maps to Vietnam documents. You can even print out text and photos from the famous visit Elvis Presley made to Richard Nixon.

Eventually, all data in the NAIL prototype will be migrated to our Archival Research Catalog. There the data will be even easier to use and additions will be made continuously. In fact our Strategic Plan calls for us to have 100% of our holdings described in ARC by the year 2007.

Also, we recently made available on-line a new microfilm publications database that you can access on your computer from NAIL, so that you can know which of our facilities have the particular microfilm sources that you need. Clearly microfilm is one of our most heavily used resources and, as you know, is especially important to genealogists. And over the years we have microfilmed our most highly used records to preserve original records and to be able to make microfilm copies widely available. These include copies of microfilm we accessioned directly from agencies.

Included among our microfilmed holdings, as you are aware, are census records, passenger lists, pension files, 18th and 19th century military records, and Native American records. These resources are available in NARA research rooms around the country, and many can be purchased and rented. Unfortunately, access to information about the existence and location of microfilm copies has been incomplete and not easily accessible to the public.

Therefore, we have created a reliable, electronically accessible database that contains brief descriptions of NARA's 3,100 microfilm publications and lists the NARA facilities that hold copies. From this database, you may search and display information by keyword, by publication number, by record group number, and/or by NARA facility location. And if the microfilm is available for rent or purchase, ordering instructions are available.

And finally, later this month we expect to go live with a search engine for everything on our Web site. With a search button, you'll be able to type in what you want to know about, and find out what pertains to it in all of our Web pages. Up until this action, you could search in this way only in our NAIL database. So, in all of these ways, we hope we are making it easier for you to find records that you need.

Now let me turn to something else that is of major concern to you—NARA's space study. Although we have a superb state-of-the-art archival facility in College Park, Maryland, most of our other facilities that store Federal records are full or soon will be. And 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 those facilities is not good for researchers or for staff.

We began to address these issues by receiving money in our Fiscal Year 1999 appropriation for planning for the renovation of the original National Archives Building, which will include a totally new, larger, and more modern genealogy center. And we received funds to plan a new archival facility in Alaska.

You will recall that we also began last year to take a look at our space needs more broadly. And in addition to internal fact-gathering, we made a major effort to consult NARA's customers. We set up a web site to solicit advice, and met with leaders of genealogical, historical, and other organizations whose members use our records, including the Federation of Genealogical Societies. And in our facilities all across the country, we invited the public to advise us in "town hall" meetings, in which many of you were good enough to participate.

Happily for us, we received an immense amount of feedback, which has taken time to digest. But from what we learned and from subsequent developments, two major things became evident. One, we need a strong regional system. And two, we should focus now on our most immediate facility needs rather than on a more comprehensive space plan, which we could not fund or manage adequately in the short term, and which changing conditions and changing leadership could make moot in the long term.

Our study and subsequent developments have made it clear that there are areas in which we need to act now. On the basis of what we learned, I identified three space initiatives to which we will give priority in addition to those already underway. We will focus on the space needs of our Southeast region, which is in the most urgent situation. We will prepare to meet space needs of our military personnel service records. And we will develop and implement records storage standards, which have long been needed to protect Federal records in general.

Let me tell you quickly first what we're doing about space in our Southeast Region. NARA's Southeast regional operations have been for some time the most critical space needs among all our regional facilities. Our Southeast Region records center and regional archives are currently housed in a structure in East Point, Georgia, originally built as a military supply depot in World War II.

We've now located much better records center storage space in a modern warehouse, also in the Atlanta area, at Palmetto, Georgia, just 20 miles from East Point. We are already moving there all records center records that we have been maintaining in East Point and in an annex in Duluth, Georgia. And for the archival records in East Point, we will build a new regional archives.

This is in keeping not only with the need for archival-quality space for these records but also with our policy to separate our archival facilities, which we want to own, from our records centers, which need the flexibility of leased space to meet customer demand from Federal agencies. Already we have been exploring possible partnerships with universities and state entities in a search for a new regional archives location, remaining in the Atlanta area.

The second focus I mentioned is on the National Personnel Records Center we maintain here in St. Louis, Missouri. It holds millions of military personnel service records of great importance to genealogists and veterans. Currently these records belong to the Department of Defense, which has scheduled them for retention for periods not exceeding 75 years.

In 1995, a NARA task force appraised these records and recommended that they be scheduled for permanent retention in the National Archives. They document the service of men and women who took part in our nation's defense throughout the 20th century, although some of these records go back to 1885. Accordingly, I recently took official action to preserve them as archival records.

This means that genealogists will not have to worry about these valuable records being destroyed. But it also means that the records will need to be housed in archival space with environmental controls necessary for their long-term preservation. We will need an archives facility to house these records and make them available once they have come into NARA's legal custody.

Already many of these records are fragile. Some were damaged by fire in 1973. Some are on chemically deteriorating paper stock. And some have suffered from the wear and tear of repeated handling. We have requested funds in our FY 2000 budget to begin special preservation treatment for such records. But to meet the long-term storage needs of these valuable but fragile records will require more planning and a new facility, to which we will now give high priority.

The third space need on which we are focusing pertains to our facilities in general. In the past, we have had no comprehensive standards for the storage of records, whether temporary or permanent. Now we are developing records center storage standards for records still in the legal custody of Federal agencies, whether stored with NARA or in a private facility. And we are working also on standards for the storage of accessioned permanent records.

NARA has already published records center storage standards for public comment, and will soon publish archival storage standards as well. And when implemented, these standards will contribute to the preservation of records of importance to all of us.

So far I have described new access services available to you, and space decisions of importance for meeting genealogists' present and future needs. Let me conclude with a bit more about what's coming in the future.

On the horizon, NARA is preparing to open, on April 1, 2002, the 1930 population census records. The decennial censuses are critical records for genealogists, and meeting your needs will require the duplication and distribution of the 4,318 rolls of 1930 census microfilm and enumeration district maps for use through our facilities and NARA's contractor-operated microfilm rental program. It also will require the purchase of equipment to store the film in NARA facilities, and the upgrading of NARA's microfilm reading rooms.

We are hopeful that our budget request for FY 2000, now pending in Congress, will provide funds for us to copy and distribute the original 1930 census microfilm so that these records will be readily available for research as prescribed by law.

We have asked that these funds be added to our budget base. And if this budget request is approved, the duplication and distribution of the 1930 census microfilm will be the first step toward implementing an ongoing microfilm program to provide a low-cost alternative for greater public access to many of NARA's most important and most used records.

Although NARA is making more than 123,000 images available in digital form via the Internet to expand access to our holdings, microfilming has been and will continue to be a key strategy for distributing records for wider access. NARA records are too voluminous to justify the cost of digitizing and maintaining all of them in digital form. And those records that are most requested will be better preserved for future generations if microfilm reference copies are used rather than the originals.

Thus our plan is to expand microfilm access to you by, first, making microfilm publications available in all our facilities across the country; second, microfilming more of the records that genealogists need; and third, making more microfilm publications available for rental.

In another area we are laying the groundwork for reviewing policies that govern the scheduling of government records in all formats and re-inventing the process by which records are scheduled throughout the Federal Government. We will be working with Federal agencies and groups like yours to look at the criteria by which decisions are made in determining which records are to be kept and for how long. And we will need your help and advice when we get down to work.

And speaking of work, one reason that I can be hopeful that this just might all get done is that we have received strong support from the Administration and the Congress for adding staff. If our support in Congress continues, as it appears it will, we will be adding, in Fiscal Years 1999 and 2000, some 100 positions to our nationwide work force.

This additional talent will provide assistance more directly to the agencies who are creating many of the records of particular interest to you, such as the courts, INS, and BIA. And more staff also will help us provide better reference services, solve preservation challenges, and deal with electronic records.

For example, we helped develop a set of baseline requirements for the management of electronic records, which provides at least a starting point for Federal agencies that want to begin now to implement electronic record keeping. We have issued guidance to Federal agencies on scheduling how long to keep electronic copies of certain records. We have organized an interagency "Fast Track Work Group" to identify "best practices" in dealing with electronic records and other guidance that Federal record keepers can use while work proceeds on developing more complete and longer term solutions.

All this is progress. But additionally, research being done for us at the Supercomputer Center, and also at the Army Research Laboratory, gives us hope that an Electronic Records Archive can be built to handle large quantities of small records such as e-mail messages, preserve any kind of electronic record in a format that frees it from the computer system in which it was created, and enable us to meet reference requests for it using a variety of tools available today and advanced technologies that will be developed for tomorrow.

As you know, we are all concerned about electronic records. Electronic records pose an unprecedented challenge because such records are vulnerable to erasure, media instability, and technological obsolescence, and because they are mushrooming in quantity and in multiple formats. But we are making progress toward meeting these challenges and averting loss.

Moreover, if this works, access to records will be expedited by combining this system with the Archival Research Catalog that I mentioned, which we are developing to describe all bodies of records in our nationwide holdings.

While this research is promising, implementation won't come until a long time into the future. And in any case it does not mean that every paper or electronic record will be saved. But if we can implement the concepts now developed, we will be able to save electronic records that genealogists and others need most, such as military personnel records and court records that are now created with computers and will be passed on to us in electronic form for preservation.

True, we can't save everything, paper or electronic, but we can develop and implement policies that ensure we save what really needs to be saved. And from all of this, I hope it is clear how seriously we are taking genealogists as customers we want to serve, and how extensively we are trying to improve our services to you.

In summary, we are continuing to make progress in implementing our Strategic Plan to serve genealogists better and all our country's citizens. We are building an automated catalog of records descriptions to help you locate material you need including microfilm publications, posting digitized images of some of those records, and enabling you to search electronically not only our database but also all our Web pages for information of use to you.

We also are addressing our space planning by focusing on renovation of our original archives building, by improving our field facilities in the Southeast where the need is most urgent, by preparing to keep permanently our important military personnel records, and by developing storage standards to preserve genealogical records among others.

And we are preparing to ensure your access to new resources by developing means to preserve electronic records of most importance to genealogists, and expanding our microfilm program for the 1930 census opening and beyond. In short, we are doing our best to take care of the invaluable records "on the other side," as Emily Mitchell called them in her Time magazine article.

But sometimes you have to get beyond your own area of activity to understand what this work really means. Everything we are doing these days at the National Archives and Records Administration follows our Strategic Plan. The heart of that plan is a mission statement that commits us to ensure ready access to essential evidence, documenting the rights, identities, and entitlements of citizens; the actions for which Federal officials are responsible; and the historical experience of our nation.

And if you really want to know how important that is, ask the ethnic Albanians now returning to their ruined communities in Kosovo. During the conflict there, CNN reported that the horrors of ethnic cleansing had come to include the deliberate destruction of public records as a means of erasing the identities and the culture of Albanian Kosovars.

I think back now to that event in the National Archives rotunda that I described at the beginning of this address. And I think how particularly important records are in a democracy. Our government, and our way of life, is not based on the divine right of kings, the hereditary privileges of elites, or the enforcement of deference to dictators. It is based on those pieces of paper, those Charters of Freedom: the Declaration that asserted our independence, the Constitution that created our government, and the Bill of Rights that established our liberties.

And I remember something that Senator Trent Lott recently observed about them. Here in America, our national crown jewels are these pieces of paper, enshrined and displayed to visitors in the National Archives. Our democracy depends on these great Charters, and on millions of other records in the care of government archives at all levels.

For in this country, records define all of our governments, document all of our identities, establish all of our entitlement, and enable us to hold accountable those to whom we entrust office, federal, state, and local. I am proud to say that we at NARA are making progress. And for the sake of our democratic society, we must.

Thank you very much.


1. Emily Mitchell, "A Visit to the National Archives, The American People's Library," Time, Apr. 19, 1999, p.67. Return to text.