About the National Archives

Archivist's Speeches: John W. Carlin (1998)

John W. Carlin
Archivist of the United States

A Video Address To The NARA Staff
November 19, 1998

Hello, and welcome to this presentation.

Each day at work, both you and I are deep into the nitty-gritty of our own jobs. For you, it may be assisting a researcher, pulling records requested by an agency, helping an agency with its records schedules, working on a preservation problem, or preparing an exhibit. For me, it may be describing NARA's needs to a member of Congress, explaining our budget request to OMB, working on a plan or problem with an office head, or giving a speech. The fact is, we're all busy; and I'd like to thank all of you for your hard work and your contributions to carrying out the important mission of our agency.

And along that line, today I'd like to take time out with you for a few minutes just to stand back and look at the big picture. Early in the last fiscal year, I gave a presentation like this on "the state of the National Archives and Records Administration." And now that we're in the new 99 fiscal year, I'd like to do it again. It helps me keep perspective on where we've been as an agency and where we're going. And I hope it will help you, too.

Progress this past year has not always been clearly visible, and I understand. For it's hard to see progress when you're struggling to keep up with reference requests or meet "pull" targets while vacancies in your unit go unfilled because so many needs are competing for such limited funds. It's hard to see progress when you are feeling that certain NARA programs--electronic records, for example, or the new records center reimbursable program--are getting all the attention while other archival activities seem to be ignored. It's hard to see progress if you had to transfer from Bayonne when the Army base on which we had a records center shut down. And it's hard to see progress when you're wondering if your regional facility will face change under the space plan we've been developing, or how your work will be different when our records center business goes totally reimbursable.

You have real concerns, and I know it.

It's been hard at times for me, too, to see progress and we've certainly faced our share of challenges in the past year. But all that comes with the job. And it's all worth it if there's clear evidence that NARA as a whole is making real progress. So the question is, are we? I believe that, in spite of all the current hardships, we are on the way to becoming the agency envisioned in our Strategic Plan, an agency in which all of us can take pride.

Why do I say this? Well, in the past year we've not only had unprecedented budget success, but also IRS legislation that allows NARA access to previously inaccessible records. We've led the Federal Government in declassification of records, and our regional operation has successfully gone through major changes with early results already evident. Significant progress has been made in responding to the changes needed with GRS 20, and our communications program even landed us a full-page article on preservation in The Washington Post. All this is evidence of progress, direct and indirect, on the four fundamentals of our Strategic Plan: improving records management, increasing records access, securing appropriate space, and building our internal capabilities. And not least of all, we've made great progress in coming together as an agency. We've reorganized in Washington and the regions to come together around the entire life cycle of records. We've come together in the development of our NARA Archival Information Locator, to which all of our archival units have contributed. And to take but one more example, we've come together on records management with the regions working more closely with our Washington units.

So, let's take a few moments and talk about all this in more depth.

This year we have made substantial progress in beginning to address critical records issues. Some of you served on an interagency Electronic Records Work Group that I created. The group made recommendations to me in September, on which I've begun to act. We've prepared new guidance to agencies on the scheduling and disposition of certain kinds of electronic records previously covered under General Records Schedule 20. This new guidance, which is now under interagency review, is designed to ensure that all electronic records are properly scheduled and maintained for as long as needed. Because of this work, for the first time we and agencies share a common understanding that electronic program records will be scheduled.

This is a major achievement that took a lot of hard work. The NARA staff members and persons with relevant expertise in other Federal agencies who served on the group, and the special consultants from outside the Federal Government who aided them, showed what can be accomplished when experts from the public and private sectors come together to work on a complex problem. Moreover, they did it with an open process, in which the Work Group held a series of public meetings and also invited public comment through a web site, an e-mail address, and Federal Register notices. In consequence, I think we raised understanding, both within government agencies and within the general public, of the scope and seriousness of electronic records issues, and the absolute necessity of addressing them.

We made progress on records management in other ways as well. We expanded the focus on records management assistance in our regions, and the field offices of Federal agencies are responding appreciatively. At the same time, I have been making personal calls on high-level officials in the agencies to help them understand that good records management is even more important in the electronic era, and to encourage their support for their agencies' records managers. And my deputy, Lew Bellardo, is an active participant in the Council of Chief Information Officers, making them more aware of archival issues as they build information technology systems. We have laid much ground work for the business process re-engineering of the ways in which Federal records overall are identified, appraised, scheduled, and tracked while in agency custody. Agencies such as the Department of Defense, research units within it, the Patent and Trademark Office, and the State Department are working in collaboration with NARA on specific electronic records projects, in which a number of you are involved. And NARA is working with DoD in evaluating software for electronic records management, which should be of help for electronic recordkeeping for at least some Federal agencies.

Also, a major records management achievement this year came in the passing of the Internal Revenue Service Restructuring and Reform Act. The act authorizes the IRS to allow NARA access to tax returns and return information for purposes of appraisal. These kinds of records had previously been inaccessible. We worked hard with the IRS and the Congress to get this authority. And now it gives us a tool that should help us meet our responsibility to appraise records containing taxpayer information while also protecting taxpayer privacy rights.

The second major goal of our Strategic Plan is to expand public access, which we have been doing in several ways.

Thanks to an agency-wide effort, we successfully opened the George Bush Presidential Library last November, and its reference room in January. This was the culmination of years of preparation by NARA staff members from all over the agency, including staff who worked directly on Bush materials, and I'm grateful for your hard work. The Office of Administrative Services helped on the facility. The Office of Human Resources and Information Services helped with computer technology. Electronic records staff in the Office of Records Services - Washington, D.C., helped us deal with the index to holdings that we inherited from the White House. And the staff now working in the Bush Library spent a lot of time in a converted bowling alley we leased in College Station, Texas, getting ready for it. This is our tenth Presidential library, and its opening was one of our major achievements in the past year. In fact, I just received a letter of thanks from former President Bush, praising the library's success in its first year and your hard work on it.

We've also made significant progress in opening new documents to researchers. For example, the Information Security Oversight Office, which is part of NARA, reports additional achievement under the President's declassification executive order. On top of our success in '97, when we declassified more than half of the total pages declassified throughout the government, more than any other agency, in FY 98 we reviewed and released 92 million more pages of previously classified material in our Presidential libraries and in Washington. Also, staff at the Kennedy, Johnson, and Ford Presidential libraries and in College Park, working with the Kennedy Assassination Review Board, helped increase the Kennedy Assassination Records Collection to 4.5 million pages, some of it previously classified. The Board concluded its operations in September, and as the remaining work now shifts to NARA, I want to thank NARA staffers for their years of good hard work.

Also we've reviewed another 445 hours of Nixon White House tapes that we hope to open in this fiscal year. And though we are having to cut up the original tapes to return "private" portions to the Nixon estate, as ordered by the courts, we are preserving all portions that the public is legally entitled to hear. In addition, we are working to provide a master copy of everything to the estate in the hope that it will eventually release the private political material that pertains to President Nixon's role, among other things, as head of the Republican Party.

Our access efforts don't stop there. We made significant progress in building an on-line information system embracing our Electronic Access Project, our Federal Register publications, and, the electronic information center that underpins all of this, our web site.

In our Electronic Access Project, we are building an Internet-accessible catalog of NARA's holdings nationwide. Already researchers at their home, office, or library computers can call up more than 380,000 records descriptions, as well as many digital documents, themselves. Many of you all over the agency have worked hard to help meet our goal of identifying suitable collections and putting on-line a total of 120,000 documents. Through your efforts we already have reached 100,000, and we'll certainly reach our goal in '99. We also completed an evaluation of our prototype catalog, NAIL. And in September we completed a data model needed for the successful development of the Archival Research Catalog that will follow. Additionally, we made progress on an automated microfilm locator that will make access easier to some of our most heavily used records.

Our Federal Register publications, which provide current information on government activity that is vital for lawyers, business people, consumer groups, scholars, students, and others, have gone on-line as well. Last February, our Federal Register staff completed making available on-line the entire 200 volumes of the Code of Federal Regulations, which users are accessing on an average of 110,000 times each day. During FY 98, users accessed the Federal Register and related publications more than 118 million times.

And we are continually expanding the ways in which we use our web site to reach you the staff, staff in Federal agencies, and the public. Information about all areas of our work is continually posted to our web site -- information and special communications, including speeches like this one of mine, about what we are doing and why -- with invitations for public comment. From the beginning of fiscal 98 to the end, "hits" on our web site grew by 238 percent to more than 56 million.

Also during the year, thousands of citizens in general learned about history from documents that we bring to their attention in exhibits and public programs in our Presidential libraries and other facilities nationwide. To take but a few examples, the Ford Presidential Museum opened a huge new exhibit on World War I, while also adding to its artifact collection the staircase from atop the U.S. Embassy in Saigon from which thousands of evacuees mounted helicopters to flee the besieged capital of Vietnam in April 1975. The Kennedy Library developed a series of exhibits, public forums, and other educational programs on "The Struggle for Civil Rights in 1963." Staff at the Eisenhower Library produced a published volume of diaries and papers covering President Eisenhower's pre-World War II career. And our staff at the National Archives Building unveiled the third installment of our popular "American Originals" display of documentary treasures in the rotunda.

While doing all this, we also continued to meet needs that are individually rather than statistically important: the need of a veteran facing surgery whose military medical records we pulled in time for use by his doctors, for example, and the needs of authors who acknowledge in prefaces of major books how much they depended on our reference archivists to find material. Many of you have heard thanks from customers like the one who wrote to our Pacific Region, "People may complain about Government bureaucracy, but they will not be able to use this office as an example." That, too, is an access achievement.

Under the third major goal of our Strategic Plan, we are trying to meet our intertwined needs for space and preservation. On other occasions you have heard me explain that space costs are eating up our budget, that we are nonetheless running out of records storage space, and that much of the space we do have is inadequate for records preservation, inconvenient for researchers, and uncomfortable for staff. In FY 98, we launched two initiatives aimed at providing long-term solutions to these problems.

First, with support from the Office of Management and Budget, we are seeking budget relief by creating a reimbursable records center program. What that means is, beginning in FY 2000, all Federal agencies that ask us to store and retrieve their records will have to reimburse us for the cost of those services, as some agencies already do. We reimburse other agencies for services; it is only fair that they reimburse us. The alternative, of course, is to go on absorbing the rising costs, which will force reductions in services and jobs in all our programs and facilities, including records centers. I'm grateful to all those on the staff who have been working hard to develop the program and set quality standards for it, which directly helps achieve our goal of records being stored in appropriate space.

And speaking of that, the opening last June of our new underground records center storage facility in Lee's Summit, Missouri, was a major achievement for expanding high quality records center space. As you know, because of a base closing, we had to vacate our records center in Bayonne, which required moving 617 truckloads of records to our facilities in Lee's Summit, Chicago, Dayton, and Suitland. Thanks to good planning and hard staff work, the move came off on schedule, which was a real plus for the agency from a service as well as a perception point of view.

We still, of course, need to plan for more space for regional archives as well as records centers, and for the kind of space we need to ensure the preservation of those records. I know some of you are wondering why the Presidential libraries and our Washington archives were left out of our space planning initiative. Well, Archives II in College Park is obviously a fine new facility. And the original National Archives in Washington clearly needs extensive renovation described in plans begun in 1984 and updated in 1997, for which the first real dollars are in our '99 budget. Presidential libraries are privately constructed and do not face significant growth in their collections. And thanks to Senator Ted Stevens, the Congress has just appropriated funds to begin the design process on a new or expanded facility in Alaska. But we need to determine how best to cope with the storage and preservation needs of growing volumes of records in our other facilities, from the Washington National Records Center to the military personnel center in St. Louis to the West Coast. That's what our Space Planning Team last year began to study. And we will continue this work this year.

I am proud of the forthrightness of our planning process in the face of a lot of unfounded rumors. Our first of some twenty space meetings, in Boston in our Northeast Region, won praise as one of the first public forums in the Administration's "Conversations with America" program, designed to promote real dialogue between Federal agencies and their customers. And after the New York meeting, one of the best attended, I got a letter from a participant who said, "I would like to compliment you and the NARA staff for the effort you are making to listen to your constituency . . . it was the best public meeting I have ever attended, in terms of openness and honesty." With thanks to all of you who helped us earn such praise, I count that, too, as progress.

We've made achievements as well in meeting needs for records preservation. In FY 98, for example, in addition to on-going preservation work, we used $1.4 million in FY 98 appropriations to buy equipment to increase our in-house preservation capacity and to contract for outside help in duplicating or reformatting hundreds of video tapes, sound tracks, aerial photos, and audio belts and disks threatened by obsolescence and/or deterioration. These are major steps in preventing the loss of valuable resources in our holdings.

The fourth goal of our Strategic Plan is to improve how we do things internally, including things to help you in your work, so that we can meet all our records challenges. And here, also, we have been accomplishing a lot. For an example, meeting a need for fairness long expressed by staff, we completed the conversion of many intermittent positions to regular full-time and part-time status. Additionally, we enabled several hundred employees to learn project management skills, inaugurated a new management development program, and extended computer training for staff members in Presidential libraries and regional facilities. And we have revived CIDS, which is short for Career Intern Development System, which many of you used for entry or advancement at NARA. Right now, we are in the process of signing on a large new CIDS class, the first external class in five years, whose members will provide help in several NARA offices and operations. And, as a first step toward reinventing the program, we expanded CIDS recruitment to people who could qualify for the archives specialist series and the librarian series as well as for the archivist series.

But advances are occurring in other ways as well. With minimal disruption, we completed a multi-year effort to move from St. Louis to a Veterans Administration automation center in Texas, certain mainframe computer applications that support the NARA records center program. Also, this year we significantly advanced two major BPRs ("business process re-engineering" studies). In one of them, the staff of our military personnel records facility in St. Louis is close to completing a redesign of its procedures for responding to customers, and in this coming year will test this redesign. Another staff task force is beginning to implement the redesign of the service order system through which fees are collected by the National Archives Trust Fund, with completion scheduled for July 1999.

And speaking of collecting money, we have established a development staff, which already has helped secure a grant of $800,000 from the Pew Trusts for the re-encasement of the Charters of Freedom; and the staff is seeking other support for our work from the private sector. Additionally, I've been trying to improve our communications with constituents, the public, and the press. I met personally this year with officials of major archival, records management, historical, genealogical, and veterans associations, such as the Society of American Archivists, the Association of Records Managers and Administrators, the American Historical Association, the National Genealogical Society, the Federation of Genealogical Societies, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators. I gave addresses about NARA to the latter and to the international archival organization called ICA. And I had a roundtable meeting with editors of The Washington Post, who subsequently published a full-page article from me about the public importance of records and the threats to their preservation.

From all this I conclude that we made great progress in the past year on a wide range of fronts. But nothing was more encouraging than the progress we've just recently made on our budget, because that will finance even more progress. We're getting a multi-million-dollar budget increase for FY 99. The President requested it, Congress approved it, and now the President has signed the bill. In our Strategic Plan, and in testimony to Congressional committees, I said that we'd do everything we could to make sure we were maximizing the use of available dollars, but if that wasn't sufficient to enable us to carry out our mission and meet our statutory responsibilities, I would not hesitate to ask for more. And last year I did ask. I and others on the staff, for whose work on this I am very grateful, spent a lot of time talking to the White House, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Congress about NARA's value and its needs. And they've responded with what is a major budget breakthrough. Let me caution that the increase is a significant first step, not in any way a total solution to our fiscal shortages. But it's big enough to finance a lot more progress of the kind I've been talking about.

Among other things, the increased appropriations will enable us to take more steps toward preserving electronic records, improving government records management, expanding public access to records, developing our reimbursable records center program, re-encasing the nation's Charters of Freedom on display in the rotunda of the National Archives building, designing the renovation of that building, and repairing other facilities. The bill also increases funds for NHPRC grants. And funds in the bill will finance 35 key additions to our staff in the regions and in Washington, while protecting our base funding so that we don't lose positions and programs in some areas to pay for something else. In past years we've had to absorb government-wide pay increases, and additional responsibilities such as administering ISOO, without additional funds in our base budget to pay for them. In FY 99, we have no such problem. The base is covered, and the increases are on top of it. For every one of you in the agency, that is meaningful progress.

In summary, let me put it this way. We still have plenty of worries: unfilled vacancies, unprocessed backlogs, and archival collections in need of preservation. We still have much to work on--saving electronic records, finding the right space, creating a reimbursable program that can compete, and providing more and better access. But we're a long way ahead of where we were last year. We've made real progress in addressing records management issues, dealing with electronic records, putting information on-line, opening new material to researchers, controlling our space costs, providing staff training, developing our computer infrastructure, improving our processes, communicating with our constituents, and getting the funds we need to make even more progress.

In the past year, I've benefitted from suggestions and criticism that you've sent to the VISION e-mail address, and I hope you'll keep using it. I've also benefitted from meetings I've had a chance to hold with groups of you in many of our facilities, and I'll keep doing that. At one of those meetings, I talked with some of you about major changes that you were involved in making. Nobody complained that the changes were not needed. The question was, would we really follow through on what we were preparing to do? My answer was, and is, "yes." So long as I feel that progress is possible, I will be working with you to achieve it. And the progress you've produced last year, coupled with our increased support from the President and the Congress, make me feel confident that much more is possible.

I thank you all very much.