About the National Archives

Remarks to the Association of Research Libraries, remarks by Allen Weinstein, October 27, 2005

Remarks by Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States
October 27, 2005

Thank you. I'm pleased to be here today—albeit as a "recovering academic"—to talk about a major challenge that the National Archives confronts, what we are doing to respond to it, and how our response may affect your research libraries.

This is a challenge that you in the Association of Research Libraries face as well, and we hope our proposed solution also benefits you and archives and libraries everywhere.

First, however, I have an announcement to make. When I became Archivist earlier this year, I made it a personal priority to open the doors to dialogue and collaboration with the many important organizations that share interests and relationships with the national archives, such as the Association of Research Libraries.

To accomplish this goal, after a search process, I have named David McMillen as the full-time external affairs liaison for the National Archives. Dr. McMillen comes to us from a long and impressive career as a senior congressional staff member. In the coming months, he will be meeting with various organizations, including the ARL, to improve cooperation with our stakeholders and customers.

I hope you will welcome Dr. McMillen in his new role and bring any concerns you may have to his attention so that he and I can address them. Dr. McMillen's work with ARL and other groups will be important as the National Archives enters a brave new world of recordkeeping.

Over the years, the National Archives has worked to fulfill its mission of preserving and making accessible the important parchment and paper records that document this nation's history. Today, however, those Federal Government records are being written electronically at almost warp speed. They take the form of text documents, e-mails, web pages, digital images, videotape, maps, charts, and drawings.

Our great challenge today is to preserve and make accessible these electronic records for tomorrow's government agencies, researchers, historians, and students. Let me set the stage for my remarks by going back 30 years or more:

  • Could you have imagined then a global computer network, sort of a phone line open to everyone? On it, you could access information from just about anywhere in the world on a computer in your office or on one no bigger than a newspaper on your lap in the park?
  • Could you have imagined then that your entire life's paper records could be stored in the tiniest portion of a computer not much bigger than a candy bar?
  • Could you have imagined that you could transmit images with a small phone no larger than the one that Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise used on Star Trek?

Now, of course, all these things have come to pass. But what things in information technology and communications that will affect us profoundly are in store over the next three to five decades?

  • Could people some day carry a small computer chip containing an up-to-the-moment personal medical history?
  • Could major software problems disappear some day if all computers and programs spoke the same language?
  • Could computers, with just one command, assemble from the Internet all the relevant data on a subject, organized just the way you want it?

I mention these things not for the sake of making "shape of things to come" predictions, but to suggest how quickly technology today moves, and how quickly it changes our way of life.

It is in this context that the National Archives has taken on the task of preserving and making accessible—for many years into the future—the Federal Government's electronic documents of today and tomorrow.

The National Archives' mission is to safeguard the records of our Government, ensuring that people can discover, use, and learn from these historical documents.

To that end, the National Archives accessions, describes, preserves, and makes available the records of the Federal Government, ensuring continuing access to the essential documentation of the rights of American citizens and the actions of their Government.

While great care is taken to preserve the important pieces of past parchment and paper, the preservation of electronic records has been a major concern for at least the past decade.

During these years, the Archives has developed partnerships with a wide variety of other Federal agencies, state governments, major research universities, nonprofit organizations, foreign governments, and private businesses. Through these partnerships, we have been able to tap into the major talents now working on information technology issues.

There has been a race against technology as we watch software become obsolete almost as soon as it is installed in our computers. But the technology for preserving electronic records is finally catching up with the technology for creating them. We have come to a major mile stone in the quest to meet the challenge posed by electronic records.

At the National Archives, our answer—the Electronic Records Archives, or ERA—is under development on an urgent schedule, an "Archives Without Walls," entirely electronic.

The role of ERA is simple and clear. Once its prototype is in operation by 2008, it is a system that (hopefully) will accept, preserve and make accessible—far into the future—any type of electronic document. Moreover, it will do so regardless of what hardware and software was used to create the document. It is not a panacea but a major first step in addressing the management of electronic records.

Last month, after several years of competition involving a number of leading information technology companies, the National Archives awarded a $308 million contract to build the ERA to Lockheed Martin Corporation.

With Lockheed Martin in place as the prime contractor for the ERA, we approach the development of "Archives Without Walls" with a keen sense of urgency. With the Government producing electronic records at such a rapid pace, ERA is absolutely necessary. The stakes for the country are too high, and failure is simply not an option.

  • Without an Electronic Records Archives, many of the records of the current Presidency could be lost forever.
  • Without an Electronic Records Archives, vital national security documents—such as battle plans, weapons designs, and sensitive intelligence information—at best, could be difficult to access, or at worst, lost.
  • Without an Electronic Records Archives, senior citizens, veterans, and others could find it difficult or even impossible to prove their eligibility for promised Government benefits in their retirement or in time of need.

In short, without an Electronic Records Archives, we could face a tomorrow without a yesterday.

This is the nightmare scenario that the National Archives, alone today among Government agencies, is charged with preventing. ERA will ensure that our past and its records are not left behind in the advance of information technology.

To be sure, the ERA is critical in enabling the National Archives to accomplish its mission. Moreover, ERA will spawn benefits that spread across the Federal Government and into the private sector, including the research library community.

Within the Government, there are many Federal agencies that must keep active electronic records for decades. ERA is driving the development of new technologies that will enable these agencies to keep and use those records, while taking advantage of improvements in information technology.

Outside the Federal realm, archives and libraries in state and local governments, in universities and private companies—libraries like yours—also face a similar challenge.

The development of ERA, and the technology it will provide, can be scaled and adapted to help you and the administrators of those archives find solutions for your particular needs.

ERA will also allow researchers at your libraries to more quickly access the records of our Government through the search tools it will provide as well as those already available on our web site, www.archives.gov.

In addition to ERA, National Archives staff is moving on other fronts that may be of interest to you. On one front, we are planning a partnership with the Archives and Library of Canada, one of your members, in the areas of security and access, exhibits and educational programming, electronic records, and preservation and storage of holdings.

On another, we are participating in efforts to identify skills through conferences and training programs needed by archivists and other information professionals to function more effectively in the digital era.

As the National Archives builds the ERA, the "Archives Without Walls," I take comfort in this:

Although the National Archives is the sole agency designated as the nation's recordkeeper, we know we are not alone in facing the critical issue of electronic records.

As in the past, the National Archives looks to your association for support and for advice in this and other areas of mutual concern. Thank you in advance, and let us hear from you.

The work continues . . .

Thank you.