About the National Archives

Archivist's Speeches: John W. Carlin (2003)

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.

In particular, this year we have seen several of our long-term projects move from the planning phase into implementation. Of course, whenever we implement new systems and business processes, there are always lots of changes involved, and most of you are, or will be, involved in these changes. This change, while it may disrupt daily routines, means we are making progress on the goals of our Strategic Plan, and that we will serve the American public better than ever before.

We cannot be successful, however, 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.

You assist researchers in finding records . . . sometimes records that can change their lives.

You help Federal agencies manage their records . . . welcome visitors to the Presidential libraries . . . painstakingly preserve archival documents . . . 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 boxes.

You type memos, maintain web sites, and create exhibits. You teach schoolchildren and adults alike the importance of records to our democracy.

Each one of you makes a difference.

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

Most people probably wouldn't think that NARA would play a role in the Iraqi war. But, records are vital to all our Government's actions, and Michael Carlson from Archives two spent three weeks this summer in the Middle East assisting coalition forces in developing and implementing records management procedures.

Doris Hamburg of preservation programs and conservator Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler also recently found themselves working far from their offices in College Park. You see, U.S. officials in Baghdad had found historic Jewish documents that had gotten wet and they asked NARA for assistance in recovering the materials. After Doris and Mary Lynn assessed the documents in Baghdad, the documents were flown to the U.S. for the recommended preservation work.

And closer to home . . . Every once in a while previously unknown records give us a new glimpse into history. This past summer, we were able to give the public access to a diary of President Harry Truman that was not even known to exist until Liz Safly, a library technician at the Truman Library, discovered it in the library's book collection. Through what would have normally been routine work, Liz recognized Truman's handwriting, and now we have access to new personal reflections of our thirty-third President.

And here's a couple more real-life examples of how records have an impact.

Recently a man came to the regional archives in New York in research of naturalization records for his terminally ill mother. Medicare officials had refused to pay for her treatment unless he could prove that she was a citizen, but she had lost her naturalization certificate. Not only did NARA staff help find the proof the woman needed, they worked with the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services to quickly issue a letter of citizenship for the woman and fax it to her son.

And because a staffer at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis provided a veteran with a copy of his military personnel record, the veteran is able to save 750 dollars a month on prescription medication because he can now apply for medical benefits.

The most striking thing about these stories is that they are not unique—this is the kind of thing that happens everyday around this agency because of the care all of you put into your jobs. This is what makes our mission like no other in the Federal Government.

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 had a great year.

Speaking of the Strategic Plan, I am pleased to tell you that we recently updated it to highlight our focus on electronic records, identify objectives that are now achievements, and reflect the progress we have made on all our goals.

Our Strategic Plan has been a sound guide for us for six years, and I firmly believe that by staying the course we will achieve our goals and meet the challenges that lie ahead.

The Strategic Plan has always included the goal of improving records management in the Federal Government to ensure that essential evidence is created, identified, scheduled, and managed for as long as needed. Over the past few years, we've done a lot of studying and planning on the best way to redesign Federal records management. Now we are implementing the strategies in " NARA's Strategic Directions for Federal Records Management," which was released this summer. This new document is our roadmap for an approach to records management that builds mutually supporting relationships between NARA and agencies and demonstrates that effective records management adds value to agency business processes.

For example, a fundamental shift we are making is to manage and schedule records in different ways to give agencies more flexibility based on how the records are actually used. You see, it is more important that an agency has the records it needs when it needs them, not that it has a textbook records management program.

We put these new directions into practice when we were called upon by the Department of Homeland Security to help in setting up their records management program. As you may know, the Department of Homeland Security was made up of 22 Federal agencies or programs that already existed. Here we used our knowledge of the original agencies and programs and a new methodology for resource allocation to prioritize where we, and Homeland Security, should allocate scarce resources.

NARA is also a key player in the Administration's E-Government initiatives.

For example, this past year NARA—the Federal Register in particular—played a key role in the launch of a new web site called Regulations.gov that consolidates all proposed Federal rules that are open for comment, and allows the public to submit their comments online.

And our Electronic Records Management or ERM Initiative is providing new guidance and tools for agencies to manage electronic records. For example, we are working with partner agencies to conduct pilot transfers and develop transfer requirements for new electronic formats. We issued transfer guidance on scanned images of textual records, PDF files, and digital photography. We also expanded options for the ways that agencies transfer electronic records when we issued a regulation allowing the use of a new tape format and computer-to-computer transfer via File Transfer Protocol.

The ERM Initiative and the redesign of Federal records management are two of three inter-related NARA-led initiatives that will enable the successful move to Government-wide electronic records management. The building of the Electronic Records Archives, or ERA, is the third of these initiatives.

Today one of our greatest records management challenges lies in the fact that many more records are being electronically created and maintained than ever before, and we anticipate exponential growth in the coming years. 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.

ERA will 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.

We have made great strides this year in turning ERA into reality. For example, the new Virtual Lab, which is located here in Archives II, will be a testbed for new technology products in the marketplace and an opportunity for NARA staff to experiment with the technology that may be used for ERA.

And shortly NARA will issue a Request for Proposal asking vendors to bid on the contract to build and design the ERA system. We expect to award the contract to design ERA next May.

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 state and local governments, 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.

In building ERA, we are doing something truly revolutionary. And, as with any new system, there is a lot of change involved in just about everything associated with it. Implementing the new business processes, procedures, and new technology necessary to address the challenges of our mission in the 21st century will require new knowledge, skills, and ability on all of our parts. A transition team is now working to plan how we will integrate our current systems with ERA and what impact these changes will have on our work.

Now while the ERA system itself is still under development, we have launched the first rollout of ERA. Access to Archival Databases, or AAD, is a research tool that is providing a new way to access Government electronic records online.

Before AAD, researchers needed to contact us directly to gain access to our electronic records. Sometimes we were able to supply them with copies of specific records after a period of time, but frequently they needed to purchase a copy of the entire file. Now they only need access to a computer connected to the Internet, and they can reach these selected records any time. AAD is truly "ready access to essential evidence."

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.

Now let me tell you about some of the other ways we are meeting customer needs today.

During 2003, the Records Center Program services continued at record levels, completing 10.5 million agency reference requests, and taking into custody 1.5 million cubic feet of records. We have now successfully converted to transactional rates and fully deployed the Records Center Program Billing System.

We opened the new Dayton Records Center at Kingsridge in October, and are now phasing in the Lenexa Records Center, an underground cave complex that offers significant expansion opportunities. We also successfully opened an archival bay in Lee's Summit to alleviate a shortage of space in the regions.

Thanks to the success of business process re-engineering, the introduction of new technology, and the commitment of the St. Louis staff, we are serving America's veterans better than ever before. Veterans now have the ability to request records through the NARA web site, thereby improving cost efficiency and decreasing response time. We are now able to assist veterans in two weeks—in most cases—instead of up to six months, and we've received lots of positive feedback from very satisfied customers.

Our web site is bringing more and more of NARA's resources and services to the public. Visitors to our web site increased 58 percent in fiscal year 2003, and while users would ideally like to see every single record we have online, they report that they are happy with the quality of our content.

Because we can't put all of our records online—at least not for awhile—we are doing other things to make records more accessible.

In March we completed the development of the ARC data entry system. For the first time in NARA history, there is one system into which staff members can enter descriptive information about our permanent holdings nationwide. So far we have trained more than 70 people from NW, NR, and NL to use the new system, and more people are trained each month. Since the system went live, we have described more than 100,000 cubic feet of records.

To help our researchers in Washington, we opened a new Research Center in the National Archives Building in October. This center provides expanded and improved space for the thousands of researchers that come to the building each year.

And we hear words of praise from researchers across the country. One author who researched a book at our San Bruno facility commented that her work was made even more enjoyable by the archivists that assisted her, shared their own findings, and, in her words, provided her a second home at this regional archives.

Another researcher who recently authored a book on African American genealogy said, and I quote, "I was in the National Archives and put my fingers on a discharge paper from 1815 of a relative of mine who fought in the War of 1812. What's more exciting than that?"

And with the long awaited revision of the Executive Order on declassification, the Information Security Oversight Office, or ISOO, has assisted in ensuring that systematic declassification of national security records is carried out in a timely and efficient manner, so that the public has access to these records.

In addition to meeting the records requests of researchers, we have been educating the public about our country's past and increasing awareness of NARA's holdings.

Our education staff here and in four of our regions are collaborating with the Department of Education on projects to help teachers use original records in middle and secondary school classrooms. In September, as part of Education Week, we hosted a series of workshops, and activities for students and teachers in conjunction with the reopening of the Rotunda. And a special issue of Cobblestone, a magazine for students, focused on NARA and included contributions from staff throughout the agency.

And our nationally traveling American Originals exhibit is still bringing some of our most famous and unique records to the American public. This year the exhibit has been in Kansas City, San Antonio, and is now in Los Angeles.

Our Presidential libraries welcomed visitors eager to learn about the lives and administrations of Presidents, as well as American history in general.

In July, the Gerald Ford Museum opened its Cabinet Room Decision Center, a full-size replica of the West Wing's famous conference room. Visitors sit at the Cabinet table and participate in an interactive video decision-making experience, weighing the complex options for a pardon of Richard Nixon and other controversial actions of the Ford Presidency. Using the Cabinet Room as an education center, students take the decision-making experience even further with role-playing and curriculum exercises based on extensive use of original documents.

Over President's Day weekend, the Johnson and Kennedy Libraries co-sponsored the first national conference about the concealed tapes made in the Oval office of six Presidents. The overflow crowd of archivists, journalists, historians, scholars and other interested citizens explored the impact these tapes have had on history.

And just a few weeks ago, the new Henry A. Wallace Visitor and Education Center opened at the Roosevelt Library. This new facility will give visitors to the library a richer understanding of the Roosevelts' and of FDR's administration.

In September we launched the The People's Vote with our partners U.S. News and World Report and National History Day. Early on, more than thirty thousand people had voted for the ten documents they believe have had the most influence on the course of American history. I can't tell you the winners yet, but on December 15—Bill of Rights Day—I'll announce the top ten documents in a special ceremony in the Rotunda.

The People's Vote was the second phase of our unique Our Documents project that encourages students and adults to think, learn, and talk about records that have shaped our country and our society. Teachers across the country have used the resources available on the Our Documents web site to incorporate these records into their curriculum.

Most of the things I've just talked to you about involve work we do on an ongoing basis. But this past year we also had a once-in-a-lifetime event that was truly historic both for NARA and for our nation. I'm talking, of course, about the reopening of the renovated Rotunda of the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., and the return of the newly re-encased Charters of Freedom to public display.

This was, quite simply, an incredible effort on the part of many people including our partners, contractors, the Foundation for the National Archives, and of course our own staff.

From the people who oversaw the details of the renovation . . .

To the conservators who painstakingly examined each letter of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights . . .

To the staff that planned special events right down to the minute . . .

To the volunteers who welcomed visitors and answered questions . . .

To the curators who put together the new Rotunda exhibit . . .

To the designers who created programs, invitations, banners, and more.

We would have not been able to do any of this without each of you, and I thank you.

On September 17th—Constitution Day—the renovated Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom was officially rededicated and the re-encased Charters formally unveiled in a ceremony attended by President George Bush, First Lady Laura Bush, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and Congressional leaders.

In his remarks, President Bush praised the work of NARA conservators, saying, and I quote, "The work of handling the fragile parchment and preparing it for these new encasements had to be difficult, and must have been pretty nerve wracking. I don't know how you practice for a job like that. But I do know there's little margin for error."

I too must give our conservators the highest compliments, for their steady hands and keen eyes have helped us to preserve our most precious documents for generations of Americans to come.

The day after the rededication ceremony, as Hurricane Isabel decided to be one of our first visitors, we opened the Rotunda to the public for the first time in two years. Although the Federal Government and most other Washington attractions were closed, a handful of NARA staff members arrived to welcome guests.

It was, for me, a particularly moving day, as I talked with visitors from across the country and around the world who had come to see the founding documents of our nation. I was also impressed to see that our public visitors that day were welcomed with the same care and enthusiasm as our VIP guests had been the day before.

Of course, the reopening of the Rotunda, although the centerpiece, was just the beginning of the roll-out of the new National Archives Experience, which we are developing in partnership with the Foundation for the National Archives. Next summer the McGowan Theater will open and next fall we will open the Public Vaults—interactive exhibition spaces that will surround the Rotunda and convey the feeling of going into our stacks and vaults to explore the records.

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

Along those lines, the Web Program Staff debuted NARA@work, a new web site that gives all of us access to both agency news and information, as well as information pertaining to the specific site at which you work.

Implementation of our new phone system is also well underway. Soon, you will be only five digits away from any of your colleagues across the country.

And by now most of you have received new computers with software upgrades.

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 volunteer to help in research rooms, give public tours, and assist with other duties to free up staff members.

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.

And sometimes you even come to work when the Government isn't open as staff of the Federal Register did last February during a blizzard. The weather was so bad that the Postal Service wasn't able to make all its appointed rounds, but the Federal Register was published as usual.

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.

This is what we all work for—to ensure that anyone can have access to the records that matter to them.

We have made great progress this year, and together we are turning our plans of previous years into reality.

From redesigning the way Federal agencies manage their records . . .

To implementing new auditing and reporting requirements . . .

To adding thousands of new records descriptions to ARC . . .

To building our nation's first Electronic Records Archives . . .

And finally, to returning the Charters of Freedom to public display in the Rotunda.

It has been a great year.

And I want to again thank each and every one of you for the contributions you make everyday and ask you to keep up the outstanding effort as we head into 2004, for we have a very—yes, exciting—but even more challenging year ahead of us.

Thank you.