About the National Archives

State of the Archives Address, December 1, 2005

by Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States
December 1, 2005

Good morning and welcome to my first State of the Archives talk. Two hundred and eighty-eight days ago, I was confirmed as Archivist of the United States and head of this agency. At that time, you may recall, the National Archives and Records Administration’s grant-making arm, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), had been zero-funded in our 2006 proposed budget and destined for closure. The President’s budget request for NARA for FY 2006 totaled slightly over 323 million dollars.

Neither then, nine and a half months ago, nor today could informed Americans confuse the National Archives’ cutting edge, creative, and energized operations with those of some moribund agency. I viewed one of my central tasks as I entered NARA last February, as I do now, that of making certain more Americans understood and appreciated our agency’s importance and vitality.

I stand here today to summarize the highlights of these past almost-10 months.

First, however, I am proud to report that because of NARA’s decisive support within the Administration, backed by comparably decisive support in the Congress, and aided by the active efforts of the NARA family and of our friends across the country, our final FY 2006 budget will be $338,141,000, or $15 million plus more than the President’s request and nearly $20 million greater than NARA’s FY 2005 appropriation.

In the process, funding for NHPRC was restored to a healthy $7.5 million for FY 2006. In budgetary terms but also in programmatic directions, strategic planning, morale, and momentum, I can report to you today that the State of the Archives is strong and becoming even stronger, thereby reaffirming the wisdom of that memorable baseball aphorism, that "It ain’t over ’til it’s over."

I am grateful to Governor Carlin and to his predecessors as Archivist for their effective efforts in strengthening NARA–this young institution, scarcely seven decades old—as we seek to fulfill an ever-more complex agenda of commitments. We stand on the shoulders—and the achievements—of those who came before us, and I ask that we acknowledge by our applause the generations of NARA employees who made this day possible.

As with any new leadership position, I have spent much of my time since February meeting and listening to nearly 2,800 NARA employees and learning about their work.

Since February, I have criss-crossed the country and visited—thus far—in addition, of course, to our four Washington, DC, area facilities, all 11 Presidential libraries plus the Nixon Library, which may join the system next year. I have also visited a majority of the 14 regional archives and 17 Federal Records Centers under NARA oversight, while meeting with virtually every organized group within the National Archives that requested a meeting.

At the same time, I would caution all of you, colleagues and friends, to beware of metaphors. When I spoke at my swearing-in ceremony, I talked confidently about visiting all NARA facilities within the first 100 days of my tenure. Almost 300 days in office, and I am still short by a half-dozen installations. Obviously, I meant to say the first 400 days!

By this time, I have probably met and talked to a majority of NARA employees. Generalizations about such a large group are understandably suspect. Nevertheless, despite the unique character of each NARA facility—whether Archives I and II, the Federal Register, Suitland, the Presidential libraries, regional archives and records centers—at each installation I found at all levels and positions a dedicated staff of the highest quality: in a word, you. Even more than when I first became Archivist last February, after these months of learning the work at hand from discussions with hundreds of NARA staff, I remain deeply honored and humbled to be leading this great agency at a time of major achievement, challenge, and transformation.

Your professionalism, your commitment to the work at hand, your response to NARA customers and partners, your sense of mission, have all been exemplary. I thank each and every NARA employee who has contributed to my understanding of the agency. Our customers recognize, as I do, the high quality of work performed at NARA. A few samples (time does not allow more):

  • An organization representing families of POWs/MIAs in Southeast Asia received prompt, accurate assistance from our military personnel records staff in St. Louis, and a representative of the group wrote:
    "The number of records you have in your custody and the number of requests that you must receive is mind-numbing. [But] your staff has made me feel like my requests were the only requests they had ever received."
  • After the Rocky Mountain Region sent two staff members to help in Teaching American History summer academies, the organizers wrote back:
    "Your office and your staff are to be commended on their expertise, experience, and willingness to share both with public school teachers. You are outstanding examples of knowledgeable professionals serving the public."
  • An archivist at Archives I who had assisted an author was told:
    "In this fast-paced world. . .it is reassuring to know that there are people like you whose efforts are always excellent. . . .To have that effort in a federal government that is blamed for everything from the weather to the price of eggs, well, it makes my pleasure and relief that much greater."

I wish that these people and many more of you were acknowledged for your efforts outside of NARA, but there is at least one person here today who has received that recognition in and outside of the Archives, having worked at this agency for 60 years—60 years!—longer than anyone else at NARA and still going strong in our Modern Military Archives: an invaluable resource for researchers and a model for younger archivists, John Taylor. John, please stand so we can show our personal thanks to you.

My first 100 days in office reinforced my determination to begin work on our new strategic plan at the earliest possible moment. In meeting with National Archives personnel across the country, it became evident to me that most of our colleagues maintain the keenest enthusiasm for NARA as an institution—its goals and what the future holds for it. This soon became even more evident as we began actual work on the new 2007–2017 Strategic Plan. In the months since we launched our efforts to draft that new 10-year plan, more than 1,000 NARA employees, contractors, and stakeholders have taken part in extended focus group discussions on its vision, mission, goals, and programs.

The focus groups have included NARA employees from every component of the agency and from virtually every level and job category. The focus groups have yielded valuable insights and information that have been incorporated into work on the new Strategic Plan.

The strategic plan is the critical yardstick by which the President, Congress, and our employees, stakeholders, and customers measure our progress toward defined goals and hold us accountable. We will be distributing shortly a draft of the new "Strategic Directions" document—with the new vision statement, mission statement, goals, and strategies; it will also be posted on our web site for comment. Next spring, when we have a complete Strategic Plan, it too will be posted for comment before final acceptance.

Some of you know that I am fond of discussing the well-known "Six Phases of a Project: 1. Enthusiasm; 2. Disillusionment; 3. Panic; 4. Search for the Guilty; 5. Punishment of the Innocent; and (the inexorable final phase) 6. Praise and Honors for the Non-Participants." However, today I want to recognize and praise those people (all participants) who led and facilitated our strategic plan focus groups around the country. Please, all of you stand and be recognized—and praised.

Abraham Lincoln enjoyed telling a story about a man pulling along a reluctant donkey who stubbornly refused to move a step. The animal’s owner then grabbed a 2-by-4 wood club and began beating the animal over the head until a stranger, taking pity on the donkey, shouted: "You’ll never get him to move that way," to which the donkey’s owner shouted back, "I know that, you darned fool. But before I can get him to move, I have to get his attention." So it is with the need of the National Archives for respectful attention and for increased visibility in the highly competitive Washington, DC, and national scenes. No longer is NARA (as some have called it) Washington’s "best kept secret."

Here credit is also due to my predecessor, John Carlin, who supported the work of the Foundation for the National Archives through whose efforts—in 2004—the unique Public Vaults exhibit, the beautiful McGowan Theater, and the O’Brien Gallery all opened. Further west last year, the Clinton Presidential Library also opened to a drumfire of publicity and a huge number of visitors. It could be argued, of course, that the National Archives’ "new visibility" owes its greatest debt to a Hollywood adventure flik, National Treasure, about an effort to gain a treasure map hidden on the back of the Declaration of Independence—Raiders of the Lost Archives, I call the film. But whatever the causes, Archives One has had its millionth visitor already for 2005, and the visitors have more than tripled their time spent in the building since the Public Vaults opened.

Several newly-initiated programs have been bringing well-known visitors to the Archives in 2005. One, our "Distinguished Foreign Visitor Program," has hosted dignitaries such as former Czech President Vaclav Havel and the Prime Minister of Iraq. Our foreign visitors have also included the ambassadors of the European Union countries, and we continue our leadership role on preservation and security issues in the International Council on Archives.

Another new program, featuring "American Conversations" with guests of the Archivist, began just yesterday with historian Lynne Cheney. In the months ahead, "American Conversations" will feature filmmaker Ken Burns; the director of the Museum of African-American History and Culture, Lonnie Bunch; political analyst Norm Ornstein; and (we hope) other invited guests including Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and historian John Hope Franklin.

NARA also received vastly increased attention in the news media in 2005 for a variety of reasons. In St. Louis, we opened to widespread national interest more than a million official military personnel files dating through 1939, including 150 more recent "celebrity" dossiers.

In Washington, the FBI gave to NARA the complete "official and confidential files" of former Director, J. Edgar Hoover.

The Reagan and Bush-41 Presidential libraries, working with our Presidential and Federal records experts in Washington, provided the White House, the media, and the Senate Judiciary Committee with over 79,000 pages of material on Judge John Roberts and made almost daily "news" during his confirmation hearing. We are now handing over a smaller batch of documents on Judge Alito.

The traditional Fourth of July festivities proceeded in 2005 with high spirits and without incident at Archives I, honored by the presence of two American servicemen wounded in the Iraq War who read parts of the Declaration of Independence.

The Archives also observed Constitution Day with a full month of special programs, and only days after this speech we will similarly commemorate Bill of Rights Day on December 15 with a special program involving the swearing-in of new Americans by U.S. District Court Chief Judge Thomas Hogan, and a speech by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

On another front, all four former Presidents have indicated to me their willingness—subject to scheduling constraints—to take part in NARA programs, and all 11 Presidential libraries (plus Nixon) took part in issuing a special postage stamp to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Presidential Libraries Act. In May, the Archives sponsored several panels and other special events to commemorate our 20th anniversary as an independent agency–events attended, among others, by former Archivists Bob Warner, Don Wilson, and John Carlin.

Regarding a more sobering recent public event, the response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, NARA’s NHPRC provided vital early funding to the archives of the affected states and played a lead role in cooperating with state and local archivists to assist records response and recovery.

I traveled with a joint NARA–state archivists’ delegation to Mississippi and Louisiana (including a visit to New Orleans) to view the damage. During that visit, CNN recorded the assistance NARA was providing to Orleans Parish. NARA has begun working with state archivists to produce damage response plans related to records recovery—and to confirm our role as "first preservers" in preventing post-disaster "identity loss."

What NARA now seeks for this initiative is a "seat" at the FEMA table, since archivists and officials in charge of public records are not now represented in FEMA’s current disaster response process. Will the members of the staff involved in these post-Katrina records recovery efforts please stand and allow your colleagues to show their appreciation for your difficult, and sometimes even dangerous, work?

Last July, NARA opened a new state-of-the-art archives in Atlanta. We are also exploring new partnership arrangements with the National Park Service that will allow NARA prime exhibit and program space in Lower Manhattan. We have also developed plans to relocate our Southwest and Central Plains regional archives in Fort Worth and Kansas City, and they hope to move to new facilities next year.

While we are on the subject of new facilities, the Federal Records Center Program moved into new records centers in Georgia and California, and broke ground for another one in Texas. We expanded our underground storage space in Lenexa, Ks, and also built a 100,000-cubic-foot cold storage facility there to house aerial photographs and similar special media holdings.

Overall, our Federal Records Center Program had its fifth consecutive profitable year operating like a business within the Federal Government. And believe it or not, the volume of paper we keep in Records Centers is still growing . . . to over 25 million cubic feet in total. In addition to that paper mountain, our records center staff is expanding into electronic commerce with electronic storage and digital scanning pilot projects under way.

Two other important areas on which the National Archives has been focused this year—educational programs and partnerships—have also helped us shed "invisibility."

Soon after I became Archivist, I requested an "inventory" of educational programs at the National Archives; my predecessor’s State of the Archives talks had mentioned only those linked to Archives I (that is, the Public Vaults, etc.). The staff report I commissioned turned up 22 single-spaced pages of dozens of educational programs by the Office of Records Services in Washington, DC, the Presidential libraries, the regional archives and records centers, the Federal Register, the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), the General Counsel’s office, the Congressional Affairs and Communications staff, the Policy and Planning staff, and NHPRC—in short, by virtually every component of NARA!

Educational programs at the National Archives are numerous, wide-ranging, and energized. Thus, when the 16,000 social studies teacher-members of the National Council for the Social Studies turn to their November/December 2005 issue of their main publication, Social Education, they will find NARA’s education specialist, Lee Ann Potter serving as guest editor and lead author of the issue entitled "Teaching Civics with Primary Documents."

Hundreds of NARA employees also play important roles as teachers, writers, and archival scholars in strengthening the fabric of knowledge concerning U.S. history and culture. In short, the National Archives’ educational mission is neither new to the agency nor removed from our goals and vision.

If anything, we have all brought into the daylight over these past months a recognition of just how significant a component of NARA’s overall work a major educational dimension has been, one I should note that does not distract from resources assigned elsewhere in our overall budget. If anything, NARA has increased its educational programming throughout the agency, responding to one of its important goals—that of increasing civic literacy in the United States.

In this connection, I am pleased to announce that Dr. Lonnie Bunch, the director of the new Museum of African-American History and Culture, will join me in serving as honorary co-chairman of the effort to field a student team from the D.C. public schools for National History Day competition. NARA will provide support staff (including volunteers) to back up the effort. This past year, without NARA support, the District of Columbia did not send a team to the nationwide competition.

NARA’s regional staff in Philadelphia played a similar key role last year in helping to encourage and tutor the more than 200 local area students who took part in National History Day competition, after a total absence of competition in that city for over a decade.

Our education programs, in Washington, at the Presidential libraries, and in the regions, are reaching out more than ever into classrooms to help teachers teach and children learn from the primary documents that tell the nation’s story. Next year, we’ll be opening the Learning Center at Archives I, the final physical element of the National Archives Experience.

As a critically important partner, the Foundation for the National Archives has made possible, through private fund-raising, several of the components of the National Archives Experience—including the Public Vaults—that have raised our profile in Washington and nationally.

The National Archives has other valuable partners, too, as part of cooperative arrangements that are woven into the fabric of the agency. These public-private partnerships, collaborations, and joint ventures have helped extend NARA’s reach to new audiences.

To design and build the ERA, for example, we have partnered with a number of the nation’s leading research institutions. Countless cooperative arrangements throughout the agency at all levels have given NARA a foothold in the education of young people.

Close relationships with our stakeholder and customer communities have become very important to us. These groups—which include historians, archivists, genealogists, veterans, and records managers–provide us with valuable advice, expert assistance, and grassroots support. We will be placing increased emphasis on these relationships in the years to come. To facilitate this effort, I created the post of External Affairs Liaison and have already filled that post.

In Ottawa last week we signed a Memorandum of Intent to facilitate joint programming and research involving NARA and the Libraries and Archives of Canada.

I should note also at this point that NARA has sponsored off-hour tours of the Public Vaults exhibit and the Rotunda for bipartisan congressional staff delegations, senior White House staff, and members of Congress, the Administration, and the Judiciary.

While the National Archives Experience and other public programs have helped to raise the Archives’ profile, our basic job (our bread-and-butter work) remains recordkeeping and making those records available to our customers on demand.

Great progress was made this year throughout the agency in more efficiently managing the records in our custody, improving the environment for their storage, adjusting our organizational structure to meet changing needs, and keeping apace with advances in information technology.

We also did well in responding to our customers. We answered 96 percent of the 92,000 written requests received within 10 days, our highest response rate ever.

We provided 98 percent of the more than half-a-million items requested in our research rooms within the requested time, another record.

At the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, 88 percent of the requests for separation papers were answered within 10 days, a big increase over the year before.

Of the nearly 10 million requests that agencies made to our records centers, we had 97 percent of them ready when requested, with an accuracy rate of just under 100 percent.

In addition, we completed 80 percent of Freedom of Information Act requests within 20 days.

The Archival Research Catalog continues to exceed its annual goals of providing online descriptions for NARA holdings, now at 42 percent of our holdings. The Carter Library completed descriptions for 100 percent of its holdings last year, becoming the first Presidential library to have all of its holdings described in the ARC.

The Federal Register expanded the use of electronic submissions through the eDOCS system; over the year it used eDOCS to manage about 21 percent of its workload. More than 65 million Federal Register documents were retrieved online by our customers.

As I noted earlier, the staff worked long and hard to process and make available to the White House, Congress, and the public, quickly and on short notice, 79,000 pages of records pertaining to Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts, Jr., and many other records concerning Judge Samuel Alito. I’ve been told that we accomplished providing the Roberts papers in less than four weeks—a job that normally would have taken six months.

The Information Security Oversight Office–ISOO–made significant advances this year in carrying out an Executive order calling for declassification or other action by next December on all 25-year-old and older historically valuable permanent records that are now classified.

Despite these stellar performances, accessioning, managing, and preserving government records still constitute our greatest challenges.

As all of you know, we are designing and building an Electronic Records Archives to preserve and make accessible—far into the future–the electronic records being created by the Federal Government today and in the years ahead.

In September, we awarded a contract for the ERA to Lockheed Martin and created a distinguished Advisory Committee on the Electronic Records Archives. This panel of outside experts, which met for the first time yesterday, will advise us on issues related to the development, implementation, and use of the ERA.

The funding for ERA we received for the current fiscal year will lay groundwork for building the entire system, and we hope to have initial operating capacity in 2007.

I need not dwell on the problems confronted in preserving and managing electronic records and ERA’s vast potential to help alleviate these problems, since I have spoken often in recent months on this subject. However, we still also face, and will continue to face for many years, the continuing challenge of preserving traditional paper records.

At this point, I am compelled to remind you of a theme raised in my inaugural remarks as Archivist: the need for civility as we deal with all the creative tensions and challenges of the complex, long-term programs now under way at NARA. Take ERA. Think of how far this project has already come from its inception: a single contractor chosen, a work plan developed for the initial increment and prototype, and the entire ERA staff now buckling down for creative and cooperative joint efforts in collaboration with the Lockheed Martin team. Our goal, throughout the NARA family, is achieving maximum civility.

Over the last 10 years, NARA has made huge investments in improvements that will significantly change how we do our work. ERA, the Archival Research Catalog, Access to Archival Databases, and the Records Management Initiatives are major leaps forward. During the same 10 years, however, the traditional—and largely unnoticed—archival programs of accessioning, processing, and preservation have quietly struggled.

NARA’s holdings of traditional records have nearly doubled in the last decade, but the resources available to absorb these holdings have hardly changed. The result is an enormous backlog of paper records that have not been properly accessioned, processed, and preserved.

We barely have been able to register receipt of new holdings and shelve them. Every day brings new recognition of how much we should be doing to address the deteriorating condition of records at risk. In FY 2005, we began to quantify this daily recognition by systematically surveying the preservation needs of our traditional holdings. We will continue to assess these same needs for the regional archives and Presidential libraries. Meanwhile, there has been much progress in managing records government-wide.

As the lead agency for redesigning Federal records management, we have continued our efforts to promote the importance of close attention to recordkeeping throughout the Government. We issued guidance to help departments and agencies establish sound policies for managing their records through Targeted Assistance and other efforts.

This year we established the Federal Records Council, a 27-member interagency committee that will work with us to identify strategies, best practices, and solutions to electronic records and records management issues. We completed the first full year of our redesigned records management training program and awarded professional certification to 47 records management training participants.

We are also, in a real sense, a "national security agency" in that we are the stewards of the records of our nation that document the rights of Americans, the actions of Federal officials, and the national experience.

As such, we must convey a sense of urgency to Administration officials and to members of the House and Senate so they will understand the critical importance of NARA’s mission.

This is no small task, yet we must persuade our leaders to provide the resources necessary both to eliminate the backlog in processing traditional paper records while preserving and making accessible through the ERA the electronic records of Government today and tomorrow.

At the same time, we must continue making every effort and devoting all necessary resources to assure the nation’s leadership and the American public that every NARA employee is involved 24/7 in the ongoing protection of our documentary record from possible theft, loss, or mishandling.

In this year alone, we have seen both little-known and powerful individuals who took documents from the Archives brought to justice after being identified by Archives employees. We have tightened security at our facilities around the country and continue to seek new measures, some made possible by advances in technology, to increase the safety factor in protecting our documents and other materials.

On NARA’s web site, whose award-winning redesign we celebrate this year, a special section of Archives.gov lists missing documents and tells visitors how to contact the agency if they locate a lost or stolen item. NARA has organized conferences in Washington, DC, and New York City, with more to follow, on security measures, and we will distribute new pamphlets shortly throughout the country on ways to protect against such loss and theft.

In this effort, I want to commend the Inspector General and his staff for their cooperation with NARA staff, starting with the Archivist. We are all trying to foster what the IG’s recent semiannual report to Congress correctly called "[a] demonstrably . . . collegial and productive environment in which the work products of the office of Inspector General (OIG) are respected and used as an agent or catalyst for positive change." That cooperative spirit will continue in the period ahead.

Earlier this year, in a conversation with President George W. Bush about the National Archives and its role, assuming funding, I promised him four "deliverables" during my tenure as Archivist of the United States:

First, the development of a state-of-the-art George W. Bush Presidential Library once he leaves office, staffed by top-notch NARA professionals and transparently administered according to the existing laws and highest ethical standards.

Second, a successful initial development of the Electronic Records Archives, accompanied by a massive reduction of the backlog of NARA’s unprocessed paper records.

Third, working with state archivists, 50 state plans for post-disaster records preservation, response, and recovery on his desk and submitted to the Congress prior to the 2006 hurricane season.

And fourth, a National Archives and Records Administration which has become a centerpiece of American educational innovation and of Washington, DC’s visitors’ world—a "must see" destination for Americans and international visitors alike, along the National Mall and throughout the world online.

Can one person, whether the Archivist of the United States or whomever, make all this happen? Obviously not. But working together, we can achieve this and more. We can make concrete progress in 2006 in achieving NARA’s mission and goals, among them:

  • to successfully conclude our new Strategic Plan;
  • to successfully achieve the quartet of "deliverables" and be recognized as having done so;
  • to incorporate the Nixon Library into the Presidential library system and to strengthen the internal bonds among Presidential libraries;
  • to make measurable progress in modernizing NARA’s system of Regional Archives and Records Centers; and
  • to make NARA the most humane yet energized workplace possible for our employees, customers, and stakeholders.

A word on this last goal. At my Senate hearing and subsequently, I have stressed among other major administrative concerns at NARA, the impending loss of many experienced personnel due to retirement or outside opportunities. I would ask every potential retiree this question: "Is the date you can retire the date you should retire?" Think about it, and share with me your thoughts on maintaining the most creative and energized workforce possible.

With support from each of you, which I will continue striving to earn, these and still other goals are achievable. I have enjoyed your support from the moment, 288 days ago, that I assumed my responsibilities as Archivist. Especially, I have counted on—and have received—the full commitment of my senior staff, without whose tireless efforts we would all have achieved much less in 2005. I now ask every member of that senior staff to stand and receive the well-deserved thanks of a grateful Archives family, beginning with my own.

Finally, before we turn to awards, in time of war which we are surely in at the moment, the country’s thoughts—and those of National Archives personnel—turn and will continue to turn toward being of service to the brave men and women risking their lives defending the rest of us—for example, the father of the writer of this letter, written about this time last year:

The writer’s father, a World War II veteran, knew he had been awarded the Silver Star but, 60 years later, had never received it. So she wrote to us. Although his file had been destroyed in the 1973 fire in St. Louis, our staff there was able to certify the award of his Silver Star, along with a few other decorations. After he received them in the mail, his daughter wrote us:

"I just wanted to thank you very much for making a dream come true for my daddy. He received his Silver Star on December 18. My mom is going to wrap it up for his Christmas present. I live in New Jersey and I am going to call home on Christmas morning to Indiana, and while I am on the phone with my daddy he will get to open his Silver Star. Thanks again for making this possible. . . . I appreciate all that you did to bring such honor to our family."

That’s the kind of human impact we have on people’s lives. That’s the kind of extra effort which makes all of you so special to NARA, and that is why the privilege of working with each of you, day by day, brings honor and pride to this recovering academic historian turned Archivist.

Recall another wartime in Washington and a Lincoln story I told at my swearing-in, revived and revised for this occasion. Following Lincoln’s visit to a church service, he told a companion that he found the preacher’s content and delivery excellent but . . . he did not believe it a great sermon. Why not? Because, Lincoln noted, the pastor had forgotten a sermon’s most important ingredient: "He forgot to ask us to do something great."

I must now humbly amend my earlier formulation of the idea. Having spent the last nine and a half months in the pleasure of your company, it is evident to me that the National Archives and Records Administration does not need to design opportunities for greatness. It is a great agency, and with your continued efforts can only become greater, whatever challenges—budgetary or programmatic—the future might hold.

Ladies and gentlemen, colleagues and friends, thank you for listening. The work continues, and now it is time to honor some among you who have done even more extraordinary work this past year.