About the National Archives

Archivist's Speeches: John W. Carlin (2004)

John W. Carlin
Archivist of the United States

Good morning, and welcome to the first-ever live broadcast of my State of the Archives address. It has always been important to me that we see ourselves as one agency, whether we are in Anchorage, College Station, or DC. And that is why in the past I have videotaped major addresses to the staff, so that everyone in every location had the opportunity to hear the same message at the same time. Still, I know video was a less than ideal solution. And that is why this year I'm so pleased that we are able to take advantage of new opportunities to broadcast this speech - and the awards ceremony that will follow - live over the Internet to each NARA facility. I am especially grateful to the engineers, FOSAs, web experts, project managers, and others on the technical team who've made this broadcast possible.

Being able to do a live broadcast of this speech is just one small example of the progress and changes we've made, this year and over the nearly 10 years that I have been Archivist. You know, early in my tenure here I was invited to meet with the leadership of the American Political Science Association. And I told them - very excitedly - about everything we were doing at NARA to set strategic directions and change the culture of the agency. After politely listening to me, they said, "Mr. Carlin, you do realize, don't you, that you can't do what you just said you were going to do." In fact, they gave me six citations from professional studies documenting that it's impossible to bring major change to the Federal bureaucracy.

I looked at those books, and that is what they said, but you know and I know that they're wrong, and together we proved them wrong. Over the last 10 years, we've made dramatic changes here at the National Archives and Records Administration. The changes permeate all we do, but let me just point out a few key examples right now:

Ten years ago we were being sued by our stakeholders because of our policies on electronic records. Today, we are recognized as leaders in electronic records management and preservation by our stakeholders, Federal agencies, and the Administration. I'll talk more about our great progress this year in records management and electronic records, but as a measure of how far we've come, this fall Government Computer News recognized our progress with a cover story and multiple articles in the September 27th issue.

Ten years ago our Military Personnel Records Center was reeling from the loss of many staff in a buyout, a crisis with intermittent employees, and a growing backlog of reference requests. Today, a re-engineered and revitalized work force, with new tools and training, can turn around requests for DD 214s in 10 days 75 percent of the time, up from 7 percent three years ago. An astounding turnaround.

Ten years ago space and personnel costs were consuming such a high percentage of our budget that we had virtually no flexibility to meet growing mission needs. Thanks to support from the Administration and the Congress, we were able to convert our records center operations into a fully reimbursable program. Today, that program has celebrated its five-year anniversary with its best year ever, and because it is run as a separate business, NARA has much more flexibility to meet client agency needs.

These are just a few examples of many, and I plan to highlight more from this year in a moment. For me, though, I am most proud of how you, the NARA staff, have stepped up to all these challenges, made the changes that had to be made, and always focused on providing the best possible service to our customers. It's a credit to each one of you that we routinely get compliments like these:

From a patron of the Roosevelt Library: "Thank you for going beyond your daily workload and giving a ray of sunshine to a 99-year-old lady."

Or, from a Waltham records center customer: "Far from a 'too busy to help you' attitude, I felt that my request was as important to the staff as to me. You fulfill your mission, Ready Access to Essential Evidence. The entire experience exceeded my expectations."

Or this one, from a Laguna Niguel researcher: "Initially, I expected to deal with the stereotypical government worker at a government office. I was amazed at the efficiency but friendliness of the staff the friendliest Federal Government employees that I have ever dealt with!"

Or finally, this one from a College Park researcher: "Thank you for your professionalism, thank you for your expedient efficiency, and thank you for convincing one taxpayer that some government organizations are well worth the money we spend on them."

These comments document what I believe - we are providing the best possible service to our customers, and it does take time and perseverance, but we have made progress because you are among the best, most mission-conscious staff in the Federal Government. More resources and technology are important, but it's people who make things happen. NARA succeeds because of you, and I thank you for all you do every day.

For it is you who make a difference in people's lives by connecting them to the records that they need.

For example, a World War II veteran was being refused much-needed medical treatment because the VA, despite six months of requests from his daughter, could not find his medical claims file. Within four hours of the daughter contacting the Pacific Region in San Bruno, we had located the file and shipped it via courier to the VA.

A New York City patron needed proof of his naturalization before Social Security would pay for a life-saving medical procedure. Northeast Region staff checked our holdings, but determined that we did not have the man's naturalization record. Staff checked some additional resources, however, and located it in the Nassau County Clerk's Office and arranged to get a copy for the patron.

And the Federal Register received the following letter: "We are cattle ranchers out here in Northern California. We run cattle on the National Forest and are often mired in codes and regulations from the Forest Service, who do not make much of this information available. Because of your work, I have easily saved a day trying to reference and cross reference making sure that I am exactly right in what I write. That gives me precious time to tend to the 'critters' and feel less frustrated about all of this."

And many more examples like this can be found in this year's annual report.

Making a difference just doesn't happen - we at NARA make a difference in people's lives because of hard work and careful planning. When I came to NARA in 1995, we laid a new course, with a new mission and vision statement and together we developed a far-reaching Strategic Plan that has been a backbone of our success. By taking risks, setting priorities, measuring performance, and focusing on outcomes, we have achieved significant results. As I pledged early on, our Strategic Plan has been a living plan, not one that gathers dust on a shelf. We've used it, adapted it, and updated it. We've come a long way, and 2004 was another banner year for progress in meeting our strategic goals.

To improve records management, we've been leading efforts to overhaul records policies and practices throughout the Government. Our Records Management Initiatives, led by Deputy Archivist Lew Bellardo, saw many implementation successes this year, from the creation of an integrated nationwide records management program to the piloting of our resource allocation and flexible scheduling strategies with several agencies. Targeted assistance continued its excellent 100-percent success rate on projects to help agencies nationwide with urgent records management problems. And the content and format of our training program for agency records professionals was completely redesigned. This progress took the concerted efforts of staff throughout NARA including appraisal archivists, targeted assistance specialists, records managers, electronic records management specialists, policy specialists, archives specialists, training specialists, and even our lawyers.

In addition, as part of the Electronic Records Management e-Government Initiative, for which NARA is the lead agency for the Administration, we issued transfer guidance for three more electronic records formats. All the work of the ERM initiative is designed to make it easier - and more likely - for agencies to manage their electronic records and to transfer their permanent electronic records to NARA. And significantly for our role as a Government leader in records management, NARA is one of three executive sponsors of the Interagency Committee on Government Information and chair of the Electronic Records Policy Working Group. In fact, next week I will formally receive from the Committee the product of their year's work - recommendations for new policies and actions to improve the management of electronic records and Government information on the Internet.

Our Strategic Plan has always recognized that the challenge of electronic record keeping is one of the most critical issues facing the Government in the 21st century. We reemphasized that when we revised the plan last year and made meeting electronic records challenges its own goal. And this August - after a tremendous effort of the program, legal, and procurement staffs - we met a major milestone in meeting that challenge - the awarding of two multimillion dollar contracts for a design competition to build the Electronic Records Archives. I've been talking about ERA for several years, but we've moved beyond research and development to actually making it real. Teams from the two contractors - Lockheed-Martin and Harris Corporation - are now working with the ERA staff and getting input from many other NARA staff, Federal agencies, and our partners as they compete to create the best design for ERA.

This summer when we awarded the contracts, I said that "ERA is going to change the world as we know it" because of its ramifications for government, business, and individuals here and abroad. Closer to home, ERA also will change NARA's world. The records lifecycle business process re-engineering project has been looking at how our work processes and information flows need to change for us to take advantage of the possibilities of ERA. We also have been developing a comprehensive data model and enterprise architecture. All of these efforts are important components of our business transformation plan, which is guiding our data, process, and system integration strategies for ERA and our other major information technology applications. I know change is never easy, but I also know you've done it before, and I'm confident you'll succeed again.

And while all this designing and transformation is going on for ERA, we continue to make great strides in expanding opportunities for access to our holdings. Staff from around the agency were trained to describe records in the Archival Research Catalog, our nationwide online catalog of descriptions of our holdings. At the beginning of the year, many nay-sayers thought we could never meet our target of describing 30 percent of our holdings, but we not only met it, we beat it by 3 percent, and we're well on our way to meeting this year's target as well. In addition, we increased by 51 percent the electronic records available online through Access to Archival Databases, which is a prototype for the access portion of ERA.

We continued the expansion of other electronic customer services by launching Order Online! last December. We've continued to add to the offerings available so that now all of our fixed-fee order forms, such as census records and pension application files, can be processed online. We also launched eVetRecs, an online system for veterans or their representatives to order copies of their military service records from St. Louis. And people are using these services. More than 30 million visitors accessed our web site in FY 2004, a number that's been steadily increasing over the last several years.

Despite the increasing number of people using our services, we exceeded our customer service targets in almost every area. You can be proud that, for example, more than 95 percent of written requests are answered within 10 days, 99 percent of the items requested in our research rooms were furnished within the requested time, and 99 percent of the attendees at our workshops and training classes said the programs met their expectations.

And just as we have to keep up with more customers, we have to meet the storage and preservation needs of more records. This year saw us make significant progress on the renovation of the National Archives Building, and as more Archives I staff move into their permanent space each week, we can all start to see the end of this incredible project. Just last month, our newest Presidential library - the William J. Clinton Library - opened in Little Rock, Arkansas. We completed a major addition to the Reagan Library that includes new exhibit space and a learning center. We finished the renovation of the Ford Museum, which created new space for temporary exhibits and artifact storage. In partnership with the Interior Department and Haskell University, the Central Plains Region dedicated a new archival storage facility for American Indian records. We broke ground on a new Southeast Region records center and made significant progress on our new Southeast Regional Archives near Atlanta, which is on schedule to open in 2005. In St. Louis we completed a risk assessment of the Official Military Personnel Files as part of the development of a comprehensive plan for their long-term preservation now that they will officially become permanent records. And the Southeast Region finished reboxing 24 million World War I draft registration cards.

To manage staff, technology, and processes strategically, we continued to link individual performance to strategic objectives through the performance plans of everyone in the agency. In a program that benefits individuals as well as NARA, a large percentage of staff around the agency created individual development plans and sought out learning opportunities to meet their goals. We also implemented a management trainee program in several records centers with more being added this year.

And finally, we've made huge process and technology improvements at the Federal Register. With a new system called eDOCS, we can now receive documents electronically from agencies and move them electronically through the entire Federal Register production cycle. We tested this system with only three agencies in 2004, and we ended up managing nearly 10 percent of our documents completely electronically. Our customers also are taking advantage of electronic access to the Federal Register, where more than 200 million Federal Register documents were retrieved online in 2004.

So as you can see, in every area of our Strategic Plan, from records management to electronic records to access to space and preservation to our internal improvements, we've made significant progress and taken concrete steps to meet our goals and fulfill our mission.

Still, all of that progress, all of that success, can be overlooked if the vast majority of the public doesn't even know who we are, what we do, or why our work is important to them. Our work here is absolutely essential in a democracy. Records have to be kept and preserved and made accessible for citizens to use, day after day, through good times and bad, for rights and entitlements, for accountability, and for history. These are not optional responsibilities. But citizens have to know these records are available for their use if we are truly going to fulfill our mission of ready access to the essential evidence of Government. That is why we have spent so much time in the last few years working with the Foundation for the National Archives to fund and develop the National Archives Experience.

The National Archives Experience is an extraordinary project that has its roots in Washington, but I hope will expand and thrive throughout NARA and even beyond NARA via the Internet. It is the combined, creative vision of people in NARA and the Foundation who realized that we needed to do a better job of telling the public about the role that records play in our lives. Too many people visited the Rotunda of the National Archives Building to see the Charters of Freedom and left without knowing that we hold millions more records in trust for their use. The National Archives Experience significantly increases our ability to share with everyone the drama, struggle, and exhilaration that are reflected in our records - records that not only trace our past, but point to our future.

Last year we unveiled the first component of this new experience - the renovated Rotunda with all six pages of the Charters on display and a new exhibit surrounding them that explored their creation and meaning. This year we opened the William G. McGowan Theater, which daily orients visitors to the National Archives Building with a short film about the making and preservation of the Charters. We've also had several film and lecture programs in the McGowan Theater that highlight our holdings and make the Archives relevant to the public. And we established the Charles Guggenheim Center for the Documentary Film and a new partnership with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to bring more innovative programming to the McGowan Theater. Earlier this week we dedicated the Lawrence F. O'Brien Gallery, space where we will be able to showcase temporary and traveling exhibits and where right now we're featuring photographic treasures of the American Presidency. And still to come is a learning center in 2005 for teachers and students to have hands-on interactions with primary sources. And for the millions of people world-wide who will never step into the National Archives Building, the final component of the National Archives Experience will be a robust web site scheduled for 2006. This site will re-create, and in some cases expand on, what you can do by actually visiting the Experience.

But it was last month that something really different opened - our new permanent interactive exhibit, the Public Vaults. We know it was special because it's not often that the Archives gets positive coverage on the front page of the Washington Post. The headline was "Archives Magical History Tour," and for the thousands of people who've had a chance to visit the Vaults, it has indeed been magical, and it will help us as an agency.

For us to truly succeed in carrying out our essential mission, we have to be passionate about helping people understand that records matter. Having our message on the National Mall is, to quote the commercial, priceless. People from all over the country and all over the world visit the Mall each year. They will take away the message that records and archives matter. And most importantly, records from everywhere in NARA are included in the Vaults. The last thing people see when they're leaving the Vaults, in fact, is an interactive display that allows them to choose any of our locations across the country and see records we hold. And for all of you, particularly those of you across the country, I hope you have a chance someday to see the Public Vaults. I guarantee you'll be inspired all over again about your work and the importance of archives.

In the end, I hope that through the Public Vaults and the National Archives Experience, people will gain an understanding of their personal connections to our records while they explore the evolution of our nation's democracy. We want families to see how their stories fit into our national mosaic, and young people to be thrilled by the real-life drama of American history. And I hope people of all ages will then take action and use the Archives - to learn, to unravel, to discover, and to celebrate the stories of our nation.

As you can see, I am so proud of everything we have accomplished this year and in my nearly 10 years at NARA. But there's so much more I could mention, like . . .

The team that produced audited financial statements and our new Performance and Accountability Report in record time under impossible deadlines.

The staff that keeps our public network applications running, even when we were bombarded with nearly 100,000 visits to our Electoral College web site on Election Day, more than 10 times the average.

The National Historical Publications and Records Commission staff who helped 84 projects to a successful conclusion this year.

The multi-office team that took our Records Management Conference outside the Beltway to Denver this year and held a very successful RACO West.

The staff of the Reagan Library, who put in countless hours of overtime to help the world deal with the death of President Reagan.

And I could go on and on, but I know everyone's eager to see the real stars at the awards ceremony. So let me conclude with this -

My time left upon this stage may be short, but I have no regrets. It has been my pleasure to serve as your Archivist these last nine and a half years. We've been through a lot, we've taken risks, and more often than not, we've succeeded where others said we'd fail. Now, by working together as a nationwide agency, we've had tremendous growth and progress. We've laid a good foundation for the future of NARA, but there's still much more to do. And I am very confident that you, the NARA staff, will succeed in doing it. Thank you very much.