About the National Archives

Archivist's Speeches: International Conference of the Round Table on Archives (1998)

A Presentation by

John W. Carlin
Archivist of the United States

International Conference of the Round Table on Archives
September 10, 1998

Distinguished Colleagues:

I have listened to the previous speakers with admiration for their eloquence, appreciation of their expertise, and a bit of nervousness about speaking after them. This is the first time I have addressed this organization or any international audience of archival leaders.

One of the reasons is that I am relatively new to your profession. My background is not in archival work but in public and private administration. I have been a dairy farmer, a business executive, a governor of one of the States of the United States, and a professor of public administration in a university. I became head of the National Archives and Records Administration in the U.S. slightly more than three years ago. I have not been active internationally because I have had a lot to learn fast and a lot of challenges to meet at home in my new role. But I have learned enough now to appreciate even more than I did the extraordinary importance of archival work in our societies. And I am excited about the possibilities for meeting the challenges that we all face. I like this work, and I am determined to meet those challenges.

Challenges are the focus of this meeting. And in this session we are discussing the "Development of Policies and Strategies" for future achievement. The time has come when I can contribute to that discussion because the National Archives and Records Administration in the United States is now well into the implementation of a Strategic Plan focused on records management, preservation, and access in the electronic age.

Beginning in the 1990s, our National Archives and Records Administration -- let me call it NARA, N-A-R-A, for short -- NARA recognized the need to plan. The work began under my predecessors, Don Wilson and Trudy Peterson. And I have carried it forward in keeping with a commitment I made in my confirmation hearings before the U.S. Senate to be an agent of change.

And change is a requirement of government agencies in the United States today. We are in the midst of efforts to "re-invent" government. That has meant setting goals in strategic plans and finding ways to increase services more than funding. It has meant learning to serve "customers" rather than simply implementing laws. And now the Administration is even insisting that we bureaucrats write in plain language. That is a lot of change even before we get to our own field's technological challenges.

However, in our country, without such administrative changes, I'm not sure we could meet the technological challenges. How can we overcome the obstacles that confront us without planning how best to invest our resources in the effort? How can we meet information needs without consulting those who have them? And how can we expect public support if we do not explain our mission in understandable language?

A strategic plan defines an agency's direction and spells out how it proposes to get where it is going. Because of the challenges we all face, I suggest that strategic planning is a necessary tool for us all in the future. And we at NARA have completed a Strategic Plan, and it is available by the Internet at our agency's web site: www.archives.gov.

In what I think is clear prose, our plan first identifies our challenges, all of which are familiar to you. New technologies create both problems and possibilities for our profession. New kinds of records are being created in large and growing quantities. We lack adequate methods for managing, preserving, and providing access to them. Meanwhile, paper records continue to proliferate, and costs of storing them consume our budget. Simultaneously, more people want more services, including access opportunities that new technologies now make possible.

With all that in mind, our Strategic Plan focuses on the following broad goals: (1) Essential evidence will be created, identified, appropriately scheduled, and managed for as long as needed. (2) Essential evidence will be easy to access regardless of where it is or where users are for as long as needed. And (3) all records will be preserved in appropriate space for use as long as needed.

We are defining "essential evidence" as record material that documents the identities, rights, and entitlements of people; material that documents the actions of federal officials, and material that documents the national experience. Our plan in a nutshell commits us to seeing that such material is created, managed, preserved, and made accessible for as long as needed.

What policies will we follow, what strategies will we employ, to accomplish those things in the era of electronic information? I would like to describe some of the major kinds of change that we are making.

First, I am glad that John McDonald's paper indicated that many of you have concluded that archivists must give more attention to records management, because so have we. In fact, we have moved additional staff to records management and are working toward adding more. In the electronic era we can no longer take it for granted that records will survive long enough to be accessioned into an archival facility, or even a records center, let alone be "permanently" accessible. Electronic records are too unstable, too erasable, and too dependent for readability on quickly outmoded systems.

For that reason among others, we concluded that NARA can no longer operate with separate staff units attentive to records only at different points in their life cycles. I have begun to reorganize our staff from top to bottom. Most of our reorganized units now have or will have responsibility for bodies of records from their creation through ultimate disposition to be sure that records of continuing value will be accessible.

But probably the most critical thing we are doing is re-examining our entire process for appraising and scheduling the disposition of records. In 1999, our plan says, we will "re-engineer the processes by which federal records are identified, appraised, scheduled, and tracked." We are going to find out more than we know now about what records are being created, whether they are the right ones, how they can be managed electronically, which agencies need help the most to prevent significant losses, how we and they can manage records more efficiently, and how to involve the public more in the process. We are now laying the groundwork for this major undertaking, and as I said we are shifting more resources into working with agencies to improve front-end records management to meet our strategic plan's first goal of seeing that essential evidence is "created, identified, appropriately scheduled, and managed for as long as needed."

We are also making major changes in pursuit of the plan's second broad goal of making essential evidence "easy to access regardless of where it is or where users are for as long as needed." Among several strategies for improving access is one that takes advantage of new technology. While you are visiting our web site to inspect our Strategic Plan, please also pull up the NARA Archival Information Locator -- "NAIL," for short. It is a pilot database for the Archival Research Catalog that eventually will become a complete catalog of the nationwide holdings of the National Archives. Researchers will be able to see on their home, office, or library computer screens what we have of use to them, and where within our system of repositories we have it. Already within NAIL you will find more than 350,000 records descriptions. And developing our Archival Research Catalog is a key NARA strategy for making more access available to more people, wherever they are.

Moreover, we are making electronically available not only finding aids to our holdings but also certain collections of scanned documents themselves. In the coming year, we will complete putting up more than 120,000 of our most interesting photographic and textual records for on-line access.

However, it is not part of our strategy to work toward scanning all records in our holdings. Our strategy is to link scanned documents to the Archival Research Catalog -- the finding aid to all our holdings -- that we are automating. That is, our strategy is to scan for electronic access documents of high interest plus documents that provide examples of the types of records within a series or collection described in our database.

Are such access strategies working? Well, there certainly has been a steady growth in the number of electronic "hits" on our automated offerings, indicating that they are a significant way of extending public access. We are getting positive feedback on NAIL from staff and researchers. Our access strategies also are linked with strategies for achieving the third broad goal of our Strategic Plan -- to see that "all records will be preserved in appropriate space for use as long as needed." Right now, we are in the middle of a space study, the goals of which are to get us more space and better space cost-effectively. Our Strategic Plan talks of consolidating records in fewer but larger, better, and more efficient facilities as a solution to space needs. Whether that is the answer will be determined in our space study.

To this point, I have described some of the major thrusts of our Strategic Plan. But it calls also for implementation strategies that I think are crucial for meeting the challenges of the electronic information age. Let me conclude my presentation by describing three.

First, the development of partnerships: Our Strategic Plan states frankly that no agency like ours in today's world can do its job alone. Change does not come cheap. Resource requirements for meeting the challenges of information technology can exceed an archives' budget easily. And there's no point anyway in a technically complex time for us to try to invent all of our own wheels. Finding partners to solve problems -- and to help finance technological solutions -- is a strategy that NARA already has put into effect.

For example, NARA is working with the U.S. State Department on accessioning electronic cable files, with other government agencies on the declassification of electronic records, and with the Department of Defense on functional requirements for record keeping systems, and for testing and certifying software to meet those requirements.

Additionally, I am pleased to say, we're engaged in an international partnership with some of you. Earlier this year NARA hosted the first meeting of a project which is bringing the archives of several nations plus international research teams together for research on the preservation of authentic records in electronic systems. As those of you who started this project understand, none of us needs to work on such problems alone.

Another of the strategies I consider major at NARA is internal re-invention. If future humans are to study our era when it is past, we must ensure the survival of present records now. But old records, not today's, are the focus of historians' attention, and of archivists as traditionally trained. Unfortunately, methods devised to deal with paper records will not suffice in the electronic age. We must understand that change is not something to deal with and get through; it has become a constant. Our Strategic Plan therefore commits NARA to develop the capacity to adapt to change continuously.

Specifically, that means we must enable our staff to develop new and different skills, make use of new technologies, and engage in career-long learning. We hope to eliminate the rigidity of current hiring requirements, redesign internal training programs, and encourage staff to create plans for career enhancement. And we must develop leaders within our organization more than managers. Administrative skills are sufficient for overseeing a status quo. But managing change requires innovation and risk-taking, decision-making ability, and skills in communicating with the outside world -- qualities that characterize leadership.

Internal re-invention also means redesigning our processes, applying new technologies to our work and developing the technological infrastructure to support them. We're going to need both innovative leaders and innovative technological solutions to problems posed by technological innovation.

The third broad strategy I mentioned is to get people whose support we need, to understand what we are doing and why. I and my senior administrators spend little time in the stacks. Our job is to support those who provide the front-line public services. So, for example, we are in the middle of a series of meetings with high-ranking officials of U.S. government agencies whom I hope to persuade to recognize their records responsibilities and support their records officers.

I have also been meeting with leaders of such major archival user groups as genealogists and veterans. We try to stay close to our traditional supporters in national associations of historians, archivists, and records managers. And I have initiated meetings as well with key elements of the press who must understand that their scrutiny of government depends in no small part on NARA's ability to secure important documents and ensure their accessibility.

We have involved the public in our space study, in records management issues, in the development of our Electronic Access Program, and in the creation of our Strategic Plan itself. And we continually post to our Web site information -- including speeches like this one of mine -- about what we are doing and why, with invitations for public comment.

Clearly, gaining understanding and support is a major strategic goal for NARA. And that extends, of course, to people whose support is financial. We have already carried out a commitment in our Strategic Plan to create a development office to help raise funds privately for things that the government prefers not to finance. But we also have become more aggressive in taking our case for government funding both to the President, who must approve budget requests, and to the Congress, which acts on them. And here, again, I can report significant progress: the outlook for our funding for the coming fiscal year is good. Last February, at my request, President Clinton proposed a substantial budget increase for NARA, and the response in the Congress has been encouraging.

In addition, with support from the Administration and the Congress, we are developing an alternative source of funding by creating a reimbursable records center program. Beginning in the year 2000, we will start charging all agencies for such services. That will assure more appropriated funds for records management and electronic records issues.

In making the case for support, I find that some of our politicians are impressed by my argument that nobody will know in the future what they did unless we have the funds to preserve the relevant records. But our message is far more serious than that. In our country, 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 our democracy. Every time our records enable people to analyze the actions of our government and hold our 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 our democracy. And at a time in the United States when voter turnout indicates voter apathy, and polls are showing that Americans' faith in institutions is low, it is more important than ever that people be able to count on the agencies that are supposed to be zealously and impartially documenting their rights, the actions of their government, and what is significant in their history.

Every time I go into the rotunda of our National Archives building in downtown Washington and see hundreds of people lined up for a look at America's Charters of Freedom -- the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights -- I feel the significance of what we do. Every time my staff, like many of yours, helps locate material of use to those who are tracing assets looted by the Nazis from Holocaust survivors, I feel the significance of what we do. And I feel it just as strongly when I get messages such as we received recently from a user of our electronic database, the NARA Archival Information Locator that I previously described. The user said, in a reply message that we received, and I quote, "Thanks for allowing us to access this most important database. This assures me that we are a government ‘of the people, by the people'."

It was an electronic message in an era of new information technology. And it told me that we are at least beginning to meet the challenges. I look forward to working with all of you as we develop strategies and policies to preserve and protect the archives of our countries.

Thank you.