About the National Archives

Archivist's Speeches: Video Presentation on the State of the National Archives and Records Administration December 14, 1999

Archivist of the United States

Video Presentation on the State of the National Archives and Records Administration
December 14, 1999

Good day, and thanks very much for attending this presentation. Every year about this time, I think it helps to stand back and look at what we've accomplished. In Waltham and West Branch as well as in Washington. In your jobs as well as in mine.

A year ago, in a presentation like this, I expressed pride in our progress, but noted that it wasn't easy to see. We'd started many initiatives that had not yet reached fruition. Well, now many of them have. In the past year, we've made significant and visible progress in every major phase of our activity. In every part of the country. In archives, records centers, and Presidential libraries. Progress toward meeting all four major goals in our Strategic Plan. Progress in carrying out NARA's mission to ensure ready access to essential evidence.

There are several reasons for our progress. We found some better ways to do our jobs. We're developing our existing staff while also adding new talent. And we're working together as an agency toward our goals. Also, we had dollar increases from the Administration and the Congress. They've now given us additions again for Fiscal Year 2000. Not enough to meet all our needs. Far from it. But enough to give you and me a lot of help. Help in working with agencies, in preserving records, in improving facilities, and, soon, in providing reference services.

So let me take a few minutes today to be specific about some of the good things you've been doing, some of the things in which we can all take pride.

First, let's look at progress toward the first goal in our Strategic Plan—our goal that essential evidence will be created, identified, appropriately scheduled, and managed for as long as needed. Those of you who work in records management have been fighting an uphill battle. There have been far too few of you to assist the 175 or more Federal Government agencies that are generating records in thousands of locations nationwide. But in Fiscal Year 1999 we developed a Targeted Assistance Program—a more active partnering approach that already is getting results. And you who work with agencies are getting more help. In Fiscal Year 1999, we were able to add 13 senior records analysts to the Targeted Assistance Program, in Washington and in our Northeast, Southwest, and Pacific-Alaska regions. In this fiscal year, other regions, along with Washington, will get 17 more.

Letters we've recently received show appreciation for our records management assistance. For example, a Department of Labor official sent me praise for NARA staff members in Washington. They were, in his words, "of enormous assistance" in making, "what initially appeared to be an overwhelming task turn out to be... manageable." Staff in our Southwest Region got a similar letter from an official who wrote, "NARA's participation... was a tremendous boon. We were able to cut right to the chase and have a strong sense of what it is we need to do to fulfill records management requirements." Such letters are clear evidence of the real need for our help.

For good records management is basic for effective, responsible government. Our Strategic Plan says that essential evidence, to which we must ensure ready access, includes documentation of individual rights and actions for which federal officials are responsible. No documentation, then no individual rights, and no proof of responsibility, or even of what happened. And the reality of this need has been painfully obvious in your daily newspapers.

Just in 1999, you've seen reports that certain agencies have failed to locate records documenting entitlements to millions of dollars that may be owed to Native Americans. You've seen the headline, "Gulf War Logs on Chemicals Reported Lost in Office Move." You've helped investigate publicized charges that records on Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, and other Alcatraz Prison inmates seem to be missing from the Federal Bureau of Prisons. You've helped locate government memos pertinent to claims that workers were exposed to radiation hazards in a uranium plant in Kentucky. You've also located records needed to assess charges of civilian killings in the Korean War, and GI looting in World War II. And you've helped meet a government-wide court mandate to find records illuminating what really happened in the disaster that came out of the confrontation of the FBI and the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas.

Money, health, life and death—that's what's at stake in these cases. And government records are critical in them all. That's why we're giving so much attention to records management. And that's why we've been getting more help for those of you who are working to improve our assistance to agencies.

In addition, during this past year, we've begun planning an effort to improve records scheduling throughout the government. Key staff members have laid the groundwork. And now our Deputy Archivist Lewis Bellardo is leading an effort to gather information we'll need to take the next steps in answering critical policy questions before working on improvements.

We've also made progress on the management of electronic records. For example, we helped the Department of Defense develop a set of baseline requirements, and in Fiscal Year 1999 we endorsed those requirements as a starting point for agencies that want to begin implementing electronic recordkeeping. Also, we launched an inter-agency Fast Track Guidance Development Project. It is identifying "best practices" currently available to Federal record keepers in managing electronic records. And its first results are now accessible on our web site.

Also on electronic records, our Center for Legislative Archives, which assisted clerks in both houses of Congress, joined last year with members of our Modern Records Staff to provide archival standards for the Senate's electronic information system. And our National Historical Publications and Records Commission, which makes grants for many kinds of documentary work outside the Federal Government, provided funds to support additional electronic records research.

Time today doesn't allow me to cover in depth all we've done in records management. But I want at least to acknowledge several other important accomplishments. We issued storage standards, currently published in the Federal Register for comment, for records still in the legal custody of agencies, so that federal records will be adequately protected whether in other records centers or in our own. We dealt with long-standing appraisal and scheduling issues at the Washington National Records Center, resolving the disposition of approximately 370,000 cubic feet of records. And our Presidential Materials Staff, along with others from the Office of Presidential Libraries, has started preparing to move 44,000 cubic feet of records from the White House when the Clinton Administration ends. Clearly we've made much progress in records management of all media.

Now let's turn our attention to the second major goal in our Strategic Plan—making sure that essential evidence will be easy to access, regardless of where it is, or where users are, for as long as needed.

Progress here starts with NAIL, our electronic Archival Information Locator. In Fiscal Year 1999 we continued to add records descriptions to NAIL, bringing the total now to more than 400,000. Also we continued to build the Archival Research Catalog for which NAIL is the prototype. Construction of this catalog is due to be completed in November next year. Also we finished digitizing 124,000 images of high-interest documents and photographs, which people can access from NAIL via the Internet. These materials, which come from our regional archives, Washington archives, and Presidential libraries, truly represent our holdings nationwide. Additionally we completed an on-line database providing information about more than 3,000 microfilm publications, including where they are in NARA facilities. All this is part of the Electronic Access Project we began in 1994. Clearly it has produced a wealth of resources that can now be downloaded by students, teachers, and anyone else connected to the Internet.

In another area, the daily Federal Register and the entire Code of Federal Regulations, which we publish, are on-line. And in Fiscal Year 1999 our Federal Register staff added the listing of Executive Orders and their codification. These will be followed by electronic versions of the public papers of the Presidents.

And one of the most encouraging developments in Fiscal Year 1999 came in our search for long-term solutions to the problems of preserving and providing access to millions of electronic records. To answer questions about accessioning such large numbers, we joined a partnership supporting research at the San Diego Supercomputer Center. And the Center produced a prototype that has been able to preserve two million e-mail messages in two days. Clearly this could be a huge breakthrough.

But there's more. Research being done for us at the Supercomputer Center, and at the Army Research Laboratory, gives us hope that a real Electronic Records Archives can be built. Such an archives would be able to preserve any kind of electronic record in a format that frees it from the computer system in which it was created. And such an archives would enable us to provide users with records they can read on computer systems now in use and systems yet to come. This, if it works out, would be a dream come true.

We've also made dramatic progress on records declassification. We've been slowed in this work by legal requirements for page-by-page review of some records, and for reviewing again some records already declassified. Still, our Presidential libraries and Washington facilities declassified 10 million pages in Fiscal Year '99. That brings to nearly 330 million the number of pages of records that NARA has now declassified in response to requirements in an Administration Executive Order.

That's the largest number of records declassified by any one agency in the same period. And it's more than half of the total declassified throughout the Federal Government. We know this because the Information Security Oversight Office, which is part of NARA, tracks classification and declassification while it works to improve the quality of relevant government programs. Also, ISOO staff, along with others from NARA, played a major role in decisions favoring declassification made by ISCAP, the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel.

Moreover, in the past year, we provided public access to a lot of high-visibility materials. Last year we assumed sole responsibility from the JFK Assassination Records Review Board for the JFK Assassination Records Collection, to which we added 2,000 cubic feet. We opened 445 more hours of taped conversations from the Nixon White House, as well as more tapes from the Johnson and Kennedy Administrations. We contributed leadership and a lot of hard work to the Nazi War Criminal Records Interagency Working Group. And we produced an expanded finding aid to records of use in the search for assets looted by the Nazis from Holocaust victims.

Here again, time is not sufficient for me to detail all the access achievements we made. But let me list at least a couple more. We pilot-tested new work processes in St. Louis to provide better service in responding to records needs of veterans. We hired and trained new staff to process and review records under the Presidential Records Act and the Freedom of Information Act. And in many of our facilities we expanded the hours of operation in research rooms. I know that lots of you have worked hard to be responsive in this way to our customers, and I want to thank you. In this fiscal year, we'll be able to help you by filling 17 more archival reference positions in both Washington and the regions.

Is the public noticing our access progress? There's reason to think so. A friend told me recently of having lunch with a legal historian who, "was raving about NARA's on-line search procedure. She found three very difficult-to-find items she wanted with very few clicks." And a New York Times writer wrote this about our response to an inquiry from her:

"I received the precise information, complete with citations and details, in an E-mail message that was as chipper as a happy-face sticker. This was the most gratifying use of my tax dollars since the Park Service began building bike paths."

We've also received kudos for access services beyond the electronic. To take but a couple of examples, Time magazine called NARA "ground zero" for research by genealogists. And a Baltimore Sun reviewer praised the third installment of our American Originals exhibit in the National Archives rotunda, saying that it provides "a kinetic, insightful education that... thick, dusty history books can't match." The press—with whom we have had much better relations generally this year—also responded favorably to the exhibit we opened in the National Archives Building entitled, "Picturing the Century, 100 Years of Photographs from NARA."

Our Presidential libraries as well have won praise for major exhibits this past year: At the Johnson Library, a new exhibit on the First Lady. At the Bush Library, an exhibit on the President's Maine connection. At the Ford Library, an exhibit on "The American Century." And the Kennedy Library celebrated its 20th anniversary with a special exhibit of its treasures, which a Providence Journal reviewer praised as a "delight to the eyes" as well as a source of "insight into the political process." Those are but a few examples. But all this is progress in public access service.

Toward the third major goal in our Strategic Plan—that all records will be preserved in appropriate space for use as long as needed—we've also made significant achievements. In Fiscal Year 1999, our Southeast Region records center operation started moving from East Point and Duluth to improved quarters in Palmetto, Georgia. We completed concept design for a prototype regional archives. And we are looking at alternatives for a new regional archives in the Atlanta area. Also we now have funds to plan for a new facility in Anchorage. And our plans are going forward for a major renovation of our grand old National Archives Building. We want to make it safer for records, customers, and you who work there, and provide a better environment for your work. Also we completed much of the design work for renovation projects aimed at improving public outreach at the Roosevelt and Truman libraries.

As you all know by now, we also are re-encasing the Charters of Freedom so that they can remain safely on display in the Archives I rotunda. In Fiscal Year 1999, we designed, fabricated, and tested a prototype encasement. And with help from President and Mrs. Clinton, we kicked off a campaign to raise private-sector funding for creating a major public exhibit about the Charters of Freedom, for restoring the historical murals in the rotunda of the National Archives Building, and for facility improvements that will enhance the experience of the million visitors a year we get there.

We also made progress in records preservation in Fiscal Year 1999. With money appropriated by the Congress for the preservation of at-risk archival holdings, we preserved 185 cubic feet of newly received records that required preservation action. And we preserved 1,320 cubic feet of records previously identified as in jeopardy. In addition, we instituted risk assessment procedures for all new accessions of Federal records in the Washington, DC, area. We trained Presidential library archivists in new procedures for preservation and risk-assessment. And we surveyed records proposed for laboratory conservation treatment in six regional archives facilities. Moreover, at last we've let a contract for cold storage for non-textual records. And with Fiscal Year 2000 funds, we'll fill seven staff positions in a program in St. Louis to preserve veterans records at risk. Eventually, in St. Louis, we'll need new quarters for military personnel service records. That's because, in another major Fiscal Year 1999 action, I recognized their historical value to genealogists and scholars by designating them for permanent archival retention by NARA.

Of course, the big news for many of you this year is the reimbursable records center program we launched on October first. For the first time, all federal agencies, not just some, will reimburse us for all records center services they receive. This will allow us to provide more records center space and staff to meet agency needs.

Some of you wonder whether we can keep our records center business now that we charge for all of it. You may have read a press report alleging that our records center fees and services are causing a "mad rush" by Federal agencies "to place their records with commercial facilities." Not so. Only four federal agencies have notified us of intent to move records from our facilities to others, accounting for less than 1 percent of the 21 million cubic feet of records in our centers. Eighty-four federal agencies have signed agreements to use our records center services for Fiscal Year 2000. Many others have told us they will sign such agreements. And our records center holdings overall continue to grow.

Many of you on the staff have worked hard to get ready for this, and I thank you. Our staff in the records center system are committed to providing exceptional service to our customers. And I'm convinced we can compete successfully.

Finally, we've progressed as well toward the fourth major goal in our Strategic Plan. That is, continuously expanding NARA's capabilities for making changes necessary to realize our vision. This includes improvements in training and technological support for you and your work.

In Fiscal Year 1999, we extensively upgraded NARANET nationwide, which will benefit you and those you serve. NARANET is the electronic network that supports our information services to customers and our internal communications. We're in the process of making it better and faster, for all NARA facilities. And we're going to equip our research rooms so that staff members and their customers can access there, as well as at home, the information we now make electronically available.

Also in recent months, we increased opportunities for professional development. We created and tested two courses on leadership that we plan to offer to more NARA staff. And we developed our program for recognizing and appreciating the diversity of NARA's employees. We distributed a pamphlet about diversity to all of you. And to date we have trained 406 employees in 18 Diversity Program training sessions in Atlanta, Boston, St. Louis, Suitland, and Archives I and Archives II. We plan to extend the training in Fiscal Year 2000 to at least 45 percent of all NARA staff.

Additionally, we launched RESOLVE, a program that enables staff to learn about ways to resolve workplace disputes through mediation before resorting to more formal, adversarial processes. RESOLVE also offers employees whose work involves dealing with workplace issues an opportunity to take a course in Mediation Skills. We've presented RESOLVE courses experimentally in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago, Dayton, the Kennedy Library, and the Carter Library, and plan to make alternative dispute resolution training available to all of you.

We've taken other steps as well to improve our work systems and processes. We developed an agency-wide Performance Measurement and Reporting System. Though it needs more work, we've made a good beginning, and I'm grateful to many of you for helping with it. All of the reporting information on our Strategic Plan targets that you've been collecting all year has gone into this system. And with this new tool, we can see where we are on all our numerical performance targets in our Strategic Plan. This tool is available to you, no matter where you work in the agency, through the Staff Home Page. You can really see how the work you are doing is making a contribution to the agency. And this is important because we must report each year to the Administration, the Congress, and the public on how we are doing in meeting our performance targets.

One of the areas in which we're meeting targets particularly well is customer service. For example, we've exceeded performance objectives in the percentage of archival written requests answered in ten working days. And we met objectives in the percentage of items furnished in research rooms within one hour of request or of scheduled pull time, and in the percentage of NARA public education programs and workshops rated "excellent" or "very good." I thank all of you who produced these results.

Also we improved our in-house ability to make procurements so that we do not have to rely on a Navy procurement system as much as we did. And we are deploying the first stage of a new Order Fulfillment and Accounting System to replace our old Service Order System. Implementation has not been easy, and I appreciate everyone's cooperation as we work through the problems. Additionally we've renovated our mission-critical systems to ensure proper computer functioning as we enter the Year 2000. This, too, has been painful at times, but I thank all of you throughout our facilities who have helped with this essential job. Thanks to your hard work, we'll be ready.

We've achieved much more, all of us together, that I'd mention if there were more time. But I think what I have said makes clear that we are making significant progress towards all our major goals. However, more needs to be done. Our ten-year plan is serving us well. Nonetheless, as required by law, we periodically review the Plan. And we're going to be doing that this year.

From my own experiences, from talking with many of you, and from feedback I have received from interested professional groups, the Administration, and the Congress, I'm convinced we're moving in the right directions. I do need your comments, thoughts, and ideas as we begin to take steps to update the plan. As always, you can reach me regarding our strategic initiatives by mail or through our e-mail address: vision@nara.gov. You will find the plan, as well as our 1999 and 2000 performance plans, on our web site. The Leadership Team will help me draft an update to the plan during the spring of 2000, which I will then circulate widely for your comments. Staff advice was invaluable as we drafted the current plan, and I look forward to working with you as we update it.

But it's not just carrying out a Strategic Plan that matters. The Plan is for the purpose of helping people. Helping Federal officials manage their records. Helping the public use them. The real payoff is when someone benefits, as described in a letter I received just the other day. A woman thanked us for locating records that enabled her aging grandmother to qualify for Medicaid. No other agency, no state or local government, had been able to find such records. And it took efforts by our staff in three locations to track down what she needed. She wrote:

... how wonderful the staff at the National Archives is. They understood the urgency of our situation. They continued digging, even when it appeared that there was no information to be found... As a family we are eternally grateful... The National Archive is truly a national treasure and an invaluable resource for our country's citizens.

We are. And we must continue to be. Thanks for all you've done to provide that kind of service—and to merit that kind of praise. And thanks as well for the day-in, day-out work that often deserves but doesn't get much praise: Security services, custodial services, systems repair, and all the other work it takes to maintain our facilities. Personnel, procurement, accounting, and all our other financial requirements. Pulling and refiling records in our archives and records centers to meet customers' needs. Appraising, preserving, and processing records of all kinds. We've made significant progress with special initiatives, but each of you also made achievements in your on-going work every day—achievements without which NARA could not function, let alone win praise. For this I thank each and every one of you. And I wish you the very best for the holidays.