About the National Archives

Archivist's Speeches: John W. Carlin (2002)

John W. Carlin
Archivist of the United States

Good morning.

Each year I enjoy taking this opportunity to remind all of us of our accomplishments in the last year, and of the importance of the work we do everyday, all across the country. This is my chance to thank you for the part you play in carrying out our mission of providing ready access to the essential records of our Government.

We would not be successful in this mission without the skills, talent, and commitment of each of you. Every day, you perform the day-to-day tasks that keep our agency running and allow us to serve our customers—the American public.

You assist researchers in locating information. . . help Federal agencies manage their records . . . welcome visitors to the Presidential libraries . . . painstakingly preserve archival documents . . . and patiently answer thousands of requests for specific records.

You fill the requests of veterans for copies of their service records . . . and help genealogists research family trees.

You catalog gifts given to former Presidents . . . make all the lines of our budget add up . . . answer requests from Federal agencies and pull and re-shelve countless records.

You type memos, maintain web sites, and create exhibits. You teach schoolchildren and adults alike the legacy of the Americans that came before us.

Each one of you makes a difference.

Now let me tell you a couple of stories to illustrate this:

You all probably know that this past October the Washington DC area was terrorized for three weeks by a serial sniper. What you may NOT know is that NARA, specifically the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, played a role in the investigation into these shootings.

Chip Rootz is one of several NPRC managers who are on-call for urgent after-hours requests . . . and Chip didn't get much sleep once the investigators had a lead on the suspected sniper.

For two nights in a row, he went back to work in the middle of the night to retrieve, copy, and fax the military personnel folder of John Allen Williams to Federal agencies investigating the shootings. As you can imagine, this information was in great demand not only by the task force investigators, but later by the press.

This is just one more example of why records are important. It is also proof that the NPRC is prepared to handle emergency requests any time of the day or night. In this case, ready access was provided to Federal law enforcement agencies, the Department of the Army and the media.

Also, I think it's important to note that the public recognizes the great work of NARA employees. This year the San Francisco Weekly cited the regional archives at our Pacific Region–San Francisco for having the Best Customer Service by a Government Agency.

They said, and I quote: "If all public servants did their jobs half as well as the staffers of NARA, we would be a much more efficient, better informed, and significantly less frustrated citizenry."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

And it is because of work like this—and the significant progress we are making in implementing the Strategic Plan—that I feel we've not just had a good year, but a great one.

To start with, our Strategic Plan calls for us to improve records management in the Federal Government to ensure that essential evidence is created, identified, scheduled, and managed for as long as needed. Now, let me give you some specific examples of how we are doing that.

First, NARA is a key player in the Administration's E-Government initiative.

E-Government is part of President Bush's management agenda aimed at making it easier for citizens to receive high-quality service from the Federal Government, while reducing the cost of delivering those services.

The Electronic Records Management Initiative, or ERM Initiative, will provide guidance on electronic records management applicable government-wide and will enable agencies to transfer electronic records to NARA in a variety of data types and formats so that they may be preserved for future use by the government and citizens.

The ERM Initiative is one of three inter-related NARA-led initiatives that will enable the successful move to Government-wide electronic records management. Along with ERM, the other two initiatives are the Records Management Initiatives, or RMI, and the Electronic Records Archives, also known as ERA.

Deputy Archivist Lew Bellardo is spearheading the RMI project, which will dramatically redesign the way we do records management for the entire Federal Government.

To put it simply, our current records management program was developed in the 20th century in a paper environment and has not kept up with a government that now creates and uses most of its records electronically. With our current way of doing business, we just don't have the resources to cope with the growing volumes of both electronic and paper records. It is clear that today's Federal records environment requires different management strategies and techniques.

Based on a recordkeeping report we contracted for last year and an intensive look at our records management policies, we developed a Proposal for a Redesign of Federal Records Management.

This proposal outlines possible strategies for NARA and Federal agencies to use to make records management less burdensome and more effective. In general the comments on the proposal have been favorable, including some high praise from some agencies and organizations applauding us for addressing these complicated issues.

As a next step, we are testing the strategies in the proposal to be sure they will work. For example, the Mid Atlantic region and the Lifecycle Management Division tested whether we could prioritize records management assistance to agencies based on three criteria: physical risk to the records, the presence of rights and accountability records, and the presence of permanent records. Other prototypes are examining flexible scheduling options and expanding general records schedules.

ERA will give us the information technology infrastructure and the technical solutions necessary to implement the results of RMI and ERM. ERA will also give us the means to preserve and provide sustained access to Federal Government electronic records of continuing value and to provide economical storage and retrieval services for electronic records that remain under the legal control of the originating agencies.

As I've said many times, our challenge is to figure out not only how to manage and preserve electronic records, but to preserve them so that they will be accessible decades from now using technology that has not yet been created, or even imagined. To meet this challenge, we are designing an Electronic Records Archives where electronic records will be managed, preserved, and made available to anyone, anywhere, at anytime.

To build ERA, we have worked over the past several years to establish partnerships with Federal agencies, universities, state and local governments, corporations, and other organizations to help us find potential solutions.

And we came a long way in the past year toward realizing our goals. Thanks to the support of Congress and the Administration in our budget, we have been able to add the NARA staff and contractors necessary to get the infrastructure of our program in place.

And to help turn ERA into a reality we called on all of you—not just those of you involved in technical issues—to lend your talents, knowledge, insights, and experience. This past year we brought people from all over NARA together in what we call "integrated product teams," or IPTs. IPTs completed several important steps this year toward defining just what ERA needs to do, and how it needs to do it.

I want to stress that all the work we are doing on ERA is not just for our own benefit. The challenge of preserving electronic records affects everyone—from Federal agencies, to the academic community, to the private sector. And frankly, there is no alternative to finding answers to the challenges of electronic records. For if we don't, electronic records will be lost forever.

Together, ERM, RMI, and ERA are significant components of our effort to reformulate the way we manage government records, so that records management will effectively support the operations of e-government, and the way we do business in the twenty-first century.

I am proud of the work NARA is doing on all three of these initiatives, which has raised the visibility of NARA and made us a key player in records management issues in the Federal Government.

ERM, RMI, and ERA are the future. But we are also helping agencies now with their records management needs.

Through targeted assistance partnerships, our records management experts spend time on-site at the offices of other Federal agencies and train personnel, help plan records inventories, assist in scheduling records for disposal or transfer to NARA, and help in writing records management plans.

Two years ago, in fiscal year 2000, we established 173 targeted assistance partnership agreements with Federal offices nationwide, and increased the number of agency staff trained in records management by 17 percent. We have now successfully completed 88 of those agreements, established more than 100 new agreements, and trained thousands of people in records management, particularly electronics records management.

And here's an example of the kind of assistance we offer. You may have heard about the problems the FBI had with the Timothy McVeigh files. Following this, FBI Director Louis Freeh testified to Congress that the FBI planned to completely rebuild its records management program. Based on that testimony, NARA wrote to Director Freeh offering assistance in assessing records management at the FBI.

As a result, we conducted an overall assessment of record keeping for investigative files including the FBI's use of electronic case management systems, their use of electronic mail, and the management of records in multiple formats. The FBI's letter responding to our report stated the assessment was clear, thoughtful and focused and will be enormously useful.

Continuing our partnership, NARA and the FBI will hold a nationwide videoconference to discuss the recommendations in the report and NARA is providing two days of training tailored to the FBI records management staff.

Now I'd like to turn to another of the goals in our Strategic Plan—expanding opportunities for access.

And one way we are expanding access is by working to bring more of our services online. Right now we have about 24 percent of our services online. By 2007, we want it to be 70 percent.

We have enhanced the ability of people to find out about our holdings through the Internet by using our Archival Research Catalog, or ARC. The result of a multiyear effort by staff across the agency, ARC debuted on the Staff Only web site in May and to the public in September.

Researchers can now do complex searches on more than 600,000 descriptions of our records and the organizations that created the records. The ARC team is now finishing the testing of the data-entry system that staff nationwide will use to enter new records descriptions in ARC. In addition, another system that will provide direct online access to selected electronic databases is nearly complete.

This past year we also improved our electronic services by redesigning our public web site, making it easier for users to navigate and find the information they are looking for.

While the Rotunda and the exhibit hall at Archives I are closed for renovation, the web site is providing an important service to the public. We have updates on the renovation and the re-encasement of the Charters of Freedom, previews of our new National Archives Experience, and versions of popular exhibits like "American Originals" all online. And our web site has been used more than 19 million times so far this year.

The Federal Register is also putting more of its services online. This past year we developed and installed eDOCS, our new electronic system for receiving, editing, and publishing Federal Register documents. This system is now in full production testing.

We also initiated a subscriber service for an online Federal Register Table of Contents and a web site providing access to all Federal rules open for public comment.

Besides the new NARA web site, we have another new project web site that is attracting a lot of attention.

NARA is playing a key role in a nationwide civics initiative called Our Documents, which features 100 milestone documents drawn primarily from NARA's holdings. Each week throughout the school year, three new documents appear on the web site our documents dot gov.

Next year we plan to conduct a national vote, asking citizens to name the 10 milestone documents that they feel are the most important to our nation. I am proud that NARA is a partner in this education initiative, and I hope all of you will visit the web site and explore for yourself the documents that are featured there.

The Internet is also playing a part in new customer service improvements at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. For the first time ever, military veterans can now submit requests for their service records through a web-based, interactive inquiry program.

This new system is the culmination of a multiyear re-engineering effort by the entire Military Personnel Records Center staff to dramatically improve customer service.

The Case Management and Reporting System, a new Congressional Postcard Program, and other business process improvements, along with a lot of hard work and willingness to change, from the whole staff, have led to the reduction of 60,000 backlogged cases.

And more than 30 percent of new requests for military personnel records are now answered within 10 working days. These are tremendous improvements, and I thank everyone who has worked so hard to better serve our military veterans.

Not just on the Internet, but all across the country, we have been educating the public about our country's past and increasing awareness of NARA's holdings.

In an effort to allow more of our citizens to see more of our treasured holdings, our "American Originals" exhibit is continuing its travels across the country. After a grand and successful opening in New York City in late 2001, the exhibit moved to Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; and is now in Atlanta.

At each site, we feature some of the major milestone documents of American history, such as the official voting record of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, the Louisiana Purchase treaty, and several documents with particular relevance to the host city. And—for four days at each stop—the Emancipation Proclamation is on exhibit. Former President Jimmy Carter joined us in Atlanta in October when the Proclamation went on display at the Carter Library.

I am happy to have had the chance to meet just a few of the tens of thousands of people who came to see "American Originals." It was truly inspiring to see their excitement at seeing these documents, and the people of each city seems genuinely thrilled to have the exhibit there.

Next year, "American Originals" will go to Kansas City, San Antonio, and Los Angeles before ending up in Hartford, Connecticut, in early 2004.

This past September, Presidential libraries and their communities pulled together to remember and reflect on the one-year anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

At the Hoover Library, more than 1,600 school children from across Iowa sent in pictures on the theme "What America Means to Me." When the library started this project, they planned exhibit space for up to 450 pieces of artwork, thinking that would be plenty of room. But the pictures kept pouring in, so the exhibit kept growing, and by September 10, every piece of artwork had been hung throughout the museum.

The Kennedy Library hosted a well-attended series of forums on terrorism sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation, the Boston Globe and the local National Public Radio station. These forums focused on how the U.S. should respond to terrorism, religious tolerance, the roots of terror, and international justice.

And of course NARA facilities around the country joined the rest of the nation in commemorating September 11 with ceremonies, special exhibits, and candlelight vigils.

This past year, many Presidential libraries increased their emphasis on education programs as tools to enhance the public's knowledge of their President's life and administration, as well as American history in general.

For example, the Reagan Library sponsors "Revolutionary War Week," where re-enactors camp on the grounds of the library, and recreate battles from the war to educate visitors about the war and life in the 18th century. More than 3,500 people visit the library during this program.

The Eisenhower Library has been working closely with local schools to develop a very creative immersion program that brings every sophomore in Abilene, Kansas, to the library to view historic film footage, tour the museum and archives, and do research.

And the Truman Library's new "White House Decision Center," which opened last December, brought more than 2,000 students to the library this past year. At the Center, which is set up to look like the West Wing of the White House, students have the opportunity to role play as the President or one of his key advisers to use analytical and problem-solving skills to come up with a solution to a real problem.

The efforts of the Presidential library staffs also ensured that the public will have access to more records of our Government, as they released nearly 200,000 pages of previously classified material. In February, the Nixon staff released its largest tape segment ever—494, making a total of almost 1,300 hours of recorded conversations available.

The Reagan Library released 68,000 pages that detail confidential communications between the President and his advisers, and among his advisers.

Through our Remote Archives Capture program, we scan records eligible for declassification at Presidential libraries so that the declassification work can be done more quickly and efficiently. This year the Carter Library scanned more than 330,000 pages of classified documents.

Also, to strengthen our ability to review executive branch and industrial classification policies and programs, we added staff to the Information Security Oversight Office.

Most of the things I've just talked to you about involve work we do on an ongoing basis. This past year we also had a big event that we only do once every 10 years. I'm of course talking about the opening of the 1930 census, which took place at Archives I and at our 13 regional archives.

Many people worked for months to prepare for this opening, and preparations actually started seven years ago when the microfilm was first reviewed. To help researchers find what they are looking for, we also prepared research aids including a microfilm locator database catalog and descriptions of enumeration districts which are available online. A special web site was developed, which has had more than 11 million hits since it opened.

This was an event that was eagerly anticipated by many people looking for clues to their family history, and rightly so, because there is a lot the inhabitants of 1930 tell us through their answers to the simple questions that were posed to them. In fact, researchers were so excited to get to the census data, that some regions opened at midnight and quickly had full research rooms.

While the opening of the 1930 census transported us back to the past, some of the biggest challenges we face, and a great deal of the work we do is focused on preparing for the future.

At the same time we are hard at work on our new electronic records archives, we also have several more traditional construction projects underway as well. These projects will help us with our goal to meet our growing space and preservation needs.

Groundbreaking ceremonies were held in August for the new Southeast Regional Archives facility that will share a site with Georgia's state archives, and is adjacent to the campus of Clayton College and State University in Morrow, Georgia. Not only will this new facility ensure that important regional records are preserved in an appropriate storage environment, but this project represents a three-way partnership that will provide improved records access, the expansion of public programs, and professional development opportunities.

The development of this new, state-of-the-art facility has been many years in the making and represents a lot of work by many people. The new regional archives is scheduled to open in the summer of 2004, and will replace the current facility, which is a World War II depot, that does not meet building code standards, and puts the long-term preservation of the records there at risk.

New construction in Dayton and Lee's Summit also added to our records center storage capacity by adding more than a million cubic feet to these facilities.

There is construction going on at several Presidential libraries as well. The FDR Library broke ground for its new Visitor's Center last spring, and the Ford Museum began construction on an expansion and renovation that will include a new education center and temporary exhibit gallery.

A renovated Presidential Gallery recently opened at the Eisenhower Library, and the final design for an addition to the Reagan Library has been completed. Construction also began on our newest addition to the Presidential library system, the Clinton Library in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Of course, our biggest construction project is the renovation of the National Archives Building in downtown Washington, DC. And I know I don't have to remind any of the folks working there amid the construction noise and dust that this is a huge project. But we are starting to see the light at the end of the renovation tunnel.

The contractor has finished the major demolition in the new public space areas, and most of the new walls of the Rotunda are in place. And on the ground floor, the walls are going up in the new Researcher Registration and Microfilm Complex. There's lots more work under way, and I won't go into all the details, but we are well on our way to having the renovation completed on time in 2004.

And while this is all going on, conservators in our Document Conservation Lab are painstakingly cleaning and repairing the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights and placing them in their new encasements. These Charters of Freedom will return to public display in the newly renovated Rotunda in September of 2003, which will kick off the roll-out of the new National Archives Experience.

The Charters of Freedom will be the centerpiece of the National Archives Experience, which we are developing in partnership with the Foundation for the National Archives. Surrounding the Rotunda will be the Public Vaults—exhibition spaces that will convey the feeling of going beyond the walls of the Rotunda into our stacks and vaults. In the central corridor of the Public Vaults will be the Record of America, which will explore the transformation of records, from our earliest Native American treaties all the way to Presidential web sites.

Inside the vaults themselves will be interactive activities for all ages that will draw their themes from the Preamble to the Constitution and will include records from all across NARA.

For example, documents to be highlighted include award files for Medal of Honor winners from the NPRC in St. Louis, a letter from a child regarding the Exxon Valdez oil spill from Anchorage, and the World War I draft registration card for musician Louis Armstrong from Atlanta.

And thanks to the contributions from Presidential libraries, visitors will also be able to listen in on deliberations on the Cuban Missile Crisis and ask questions at a Reagan press conference.

And there's even more planned for the National Archives Experience . . .

  • A theater that we hope will be the Capital region's most important outlet for documentary films . . .
  • A special exhibition gallery devoted to document-based exhibits on newsworthy or timely subjects . . . exhibits that will travel around the U.S. and abroad . . .
  • A Learning Center, to reach America's youth and the professionals and parents who teach them . . .
  • And a web site that will recreate online much of the physical excitement of visiting the National Archives Experience as well as be a gateway to our holdings

With the continued contributions of staff from across the agency and the commitment of the Foundation to raise the private dollars, we will create a unique and special new venue on the National Mall.

Now, to get all the work done that I've been talking about, we must make sure that all of you have the ability to do your jobs in the best way possible.

Our Strategic Plan recognizes that to carry out our mission as an agency, we must provide learning opportunities for staff at all levels nationwide. To ensure that we meet this goal, the Strategic Plan calls for 100 percent of permanent employees to have Individual Development Plans, or IDPs, by the end of FY 2003.

An IDP is a document that lays out your professional development goals, in the context of NARA's goals as an agency. It contains plans for you to get the training, education, and development activities you need to enhance your current knowledge, skills and abilities. These activities will not only give you new tools to use on the job, but will also help NARA, as a whole, meet its performance goals.

In the next few months, you will work with your supervisor to establish development objectives that support both your individual needs and goals, and your office's objectives. I hope that this new initiative for professional development will result in productive and exciting opportunities for all of us. Our fellow citizens depend on us to do a very important job, and for us to be effective as an agency, we must all do our jobs the best we can. Individually and collectively, we can never stop learning.

As an agency, our work has gotten some well-deserved attention and praise this past year from our stakeholders and from the public. But the public doesn't see what goes on behind the scenes and much of what you all do everyday doesn't always get the acknowledgement it deserves. I want you to know that I am very well aware of the great effort you put into operating this agency.

You make sure our facilities and equipment are secure, and in operating order.

You recruit and train our workforce, which is second to none in my opinion.

You let contracts, procure equipment and supplies, and process countless records.

You meet the needs of our customers whether they are researchers, Federal agencies, or just members of the general public looking for information.

You come to work everyday and do a job that is vital to the functioning of our Government.

For when I speak to outside audiences, I often explain to them why records are important—why they matter. For without records citizens could not claim their rights or hold Government officials accountable. Without records, past mistakes would no longer be lessons for the future, and we would have no understanding of our nation's story.

Because of the work you do, all of you understand this. You know that the records we care for lie at the very heart of our common identity as Americans, and are a foundation for our democracy. As David McCullough, a prominent historian and good friend of NARA says, our records tell us who we are, what we have achieved, our adventures, and what we stand for.

I've been told that when the Southwest Region's Research Room in Fort Worth, Texas opened at midnight for the 1930 Census release, one of their regular patrons was waiting at the door. But she had not come to look for genealogical information on her own relatives, as many others did that night.

You see, this lady was a good friend of one of the Southwest's Region's long-time volunteers, a woman by the name of Geraldine Sims. Geraldine had been very excited about the opening of the 1930 census, because it was the first census she was enumerated in, and she and her friend had planned for years to research the census records together as soon as they were opened.

Unfortunately Geraldine passed away just a few months before the opening. But, keeping her promise, her friend was waiting at the doors of the Archives at midnight, and a short time later located Geraldine in the records of the census.

To me, this story illustrates very clearly the importance and power of records. For they record not only that someone was here, but that they were part of this country, a member of a community, and of a family. Records matter because they tell of the stories of the people who came before us, as they left their footprints on the society that is now ours.

This is what we all work for—to ensure that anyone can have access to the records that matter to them. And I want to thank each and every one of you for the contributions you make everyday. I also ask you to keep up the great work as we head into 2003, for we have a very exciting and challenging year ahead of us.

Thank You!