About the National Archives

Closing Plenary Session

At the Joint Annual Meeting of the Society of American Archivists, the Council of State Archivists, and the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators

Remarks by Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States
August 5, 2006, Washington, DC

I am pleased to join the incoming presidents, Elizabeth Adkins, Karl Niederer, and Mary Beth Herkert to talk about the year ahead.

First, however, we owe one more thank you to the outgoing presidents, Richard Pearce-Moses, David Carmicheal, and Tim Slavin, as well as the program committee, for an outstanding week.

The themes of this year’s convention—public awareness, technology, and disaster recovery—mesh nicely with our goals at the National Archives and Records Administration for next year and beyond.

These goals are outlined in our new Strategic Plan, which will serve as our guide for the next decade. The final draft is posted on our web site, Archives.gov. Many of you have read it and provided comments, but let me give you the essence of the plan this afternoon.

First, the NARA vision statement: As the nation's record keeper, it is our vision that

  • All Americans will understand the vital role records play in a democracy and their own personal stake in the National Archives.
  • Our holdings and diverse programs will be available to more people than ever before through modern technology and dynamic partnerships.
  • The stories of our nation and our people are told in the records and artifacts cared for in NARA facilities around the country. We want all Americans to be inspired to explore the records of their country.

Then, here is NARA's mission statement: The National Archives and Records Administration serves American democracy by safeguarding and preserving the records of our government, ensuring that the people can discover, use, and learn from this documentary heritage. We ensure continuing access to the essential documentation of the rights of American citizens and the actions of their government. We support democracy, promote civic education, and facilitate historical understanding of our national experience.

Finally, the National Archives’ six strategic goals:

  1. As the nation's record keeper, we will ensure the continuity and effective operations of Federal programs by expanding our leadership and services in managing the government's records.
  2. We will preserve and process records for opening to the public as soon as legally possible.
  3. We will solve the challenges of electronic records in the government.
  4. We will provide prompt, easy, and secure access to our holdings anywhere, anytime.
  5. We will increase civic literacy in America through our museum, public outreach, and education programs.
  6. We will equip NARA to meet the changing needs of our customers.

Now, let me indicate how we plan to meet these goals by 2009, which will mark our 75th anniversary.

  • By 2009, we envision NARA's lead role in managing Federal and Presidential records widely acknowledged and implemented through constructive partnerships with other segments of the archival community;
  • By 2009, we envision NARA's reputation for preserving and making accessible to the public, on the most timely basis, the greatest number of records possible—a goal occasionally placed in jeopardy in past years—thoroughly confirmed, and the current classification system deprived of possible abuse through development of a national declassification system and other reforms;
  • By 2009, we envision successful implementation of “increment one” of NARA's Electronic Records Archives now being developed, alongside a greatly expanded effort to reduce substantially the backlog of unprocessed paper and electronic records;
  • By 2009, we envision a greatly expanded NARA presence on the World Wide Web and significant expansion of our digitization efforts, all with a focused goal of assuring more prompt and easier access to our holdings anywhere and everywhere—in short, an archives without walls;
  • By 2009, we envision the National Archives playing a major role in strengthening civic literacy using our documentary heritage throughout all our facilities nationwide;
  • And, finally, by 2009, we envision even more greatly improved services and assistance to our stakeholders and customers.

Before describing briefly how we plan to meet these goals, let me note that we will be pursuing them in an environment of tight fiscal constraints, which we expect to last a number of years.

Already, we have taken steps to bring expenditures and expectations in line with the resources we likely will have in the next few years.

We have announced our intention to close Washington-area research rooms in the evenings and on Saturdays. New hours will be Mondays through Fridays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Rotunda and other elements of the National Archives Experience will close two hours earlier in the spring and summer, and some of our regional archives will be reducing their hours of operation. These measures will reduce costs for security services and energy usage.

We have already implemented a hiring freeze, and have received approval from the Office of Personnel Management for “buyouts” of employees in certain job categories. All of the units within NARA have tightened purse strings.

Because there could still be a 9- to 12-million-dollar shortfall in operating expenses for next year, we are anticipating a need to find more savings.

Even as we face limited resources, the workload continues to increase. The deadline set by the President’s executive order on declassification, the end of the year, is rapidly approaching.

The need to develop procedures for accepting electronic records from the White House and the departments and agencies remains urgent.

Both create additional demands on our resources.

On becoming Archivist last year, I discovered that we are also facing a huge backlog of unprocessed records not yet available to the public. Despite these fiscal constraints, we are determined to provide more effective service to the public by refocusing our attention and resources on reducing, and in time eliminating, the backlog so researchers have access to these records.

This work is embedded in NARA’s mission to enable people to discover, use, and learn from this documentary heritage. We are making changes in staff assignments to help meet this goal.

In recent years, NARA has expanded its role in managing the records of the Federal government, both paper and electronic. It issues guidance to help departments and agencies establish better records management practices and provides on-site help.

Last year, we established a Federal Records Council. It is a 27-member interagency committee that works with NARa to identify strategies, best practices, and solutions to electronic records and records management issues.

Our 17 Federal records centers have now had five profitable years operating like a business within the Federal Government, providing storage and ready access to records for departments and agencies.

NARA is also developing new guidelines to govern the declassification of Government records. This issue arose after we discovered earlier this year that some records that had been declassified and on our open shelves for years had been pulled off by their originating agency with an eye toward “reclassification.”

We are now reviewing all those records and returning as many to open shelves as possible while we develop new criteria for the declassification of government records.

We are seeking support from the executive branch and from Congress for a pilot National Declassification Initiative. The purpose of the pilot program would be to establish a “confederation” of existing agency declassification authorities, resources, and expertise to ensure timely, prioritized, efficient, consistent, and effective decisions to declassify or to continue the classification of information in permanently valuable historical records.

While public access to information is necessary in order to hold the government accountable and is critical to grounding the public’s faith in government, declassification is just one hurdle to public access.

Within the holdings of the National Archives are hundreds of millions of pages that have been declassified since 1995 but which require processing by the National Archives before they can be made available to the public.

This processing can entail the withdrawal of items identified as requiring continued classification or pending referral, screening for information subject to other restrictions, and archival processing. Access delayed can often mean access denied.

Our greatest single challenge in the coming years is the rapidly growing number of electronic records being created by the Federal Government—and at a phenomenal pace.

Unlike parchment or paper, electronic records can become inaccessible quite easily—as time passes and technology advances. The hardware and software used today to create these records can become obsolete very quickly, within years or months.

This leaves countless important records at risk of being lost forever. But the good news is that the technology for preserving electronic records is finally catching up with the technology for creating them.

NARA's Electronic Records Archives, or ERA, will begin to come on line next year. The mission of ERA is clear and simple: it will authenticate, preserve, and make accessible—far into the future—the important electronic records of the Federal Government, regardless of the type of hardware or software used to create them or the technology available in the future.

ERA will be for everyone. The technology that ERA brings will be scalable and adaptable for the entire archival community and for other institutions, public and private, that create, preserve, and make accessible electronic records.

Among these institutions are state and local governments, colleges and universities, small businesses and large corporations, public utilities, hospitals and health-care facilities, insurance companies, financial institutions, and courts and law enforcement authorities. All create documents that you and I may need some day or that will somehow affect our lives.

And ERA will be built to allow it to respond to advances in information technology. ERA will accept new types of electronic records, and Federal departments and agencies can use the latest technologies in their daily recordkeeping, knowing that those records can be easily accepted by era.

If ERA represents a key challenge to NARA, civic literacy runs a close second. Because of its importance, we have embedded the role of "civic educator" into our new strategic plan.

Education activities, of course, have been robust throughout NARA for years—ranging from programs in the regional archives and the Presidential libraries to those activities based here in Washington, DC.

Now, those programs have a flagship in our new Learning Center, which opened in part this summer and which will be fully open and operational early next year.

The Learning Center will enhance and strengthen our efforts to reach into the nation's classrooms to help students and teachers study history, civics, and social studies in a more exciting way through the use of primary documents. The center will continue its program of educating teachers how to use primary documents in the classroom.

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As the National Archives looks ahead to the future, we must also consider how to better serve customers, and one way is through our web site, Archives.gov.

The web site is constantly updated with information on new developments at NARA and regularly adds links to more and more information in our holdings that can be accessed through the Internet.

We also are looking inward as we need to make sure NARA is equipped to meet the challenges we have set forth—as well as those we can't foresee. We must be concerned about the loss of our experienced staff through retirements and resignations and the need to replace them with qualified individuals.

To that end, the education requirements for the position of staff archivist were recently changed. The change expands the list of the type of history courses that can be credited toward qualification as an archivist and adds classes in archival science to the lists of coursework needed. Also, opportunities for archival education have expanded beyond history departments to schools of library and information science.

From my first day as Archivist of the United States, I have been committed to building on the National Archives’ relationship with the Society of American Archivists, the Council of State Archivists, and the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators, and, of course, the membership of these organizations.

The challenges of the 21st century are there for all of us—the challenge of electronic records, the challenge of preparing for and responding to disasters, and, most important, the challenge of making the public aware that the documents we house are the bricks and mortar of all history. We will work in partnership to meet these challenges.

A related initiative that has NARA's total support is the "Partnership for America's Historical Record," a state-based formula grant initiative that would channel funds to state and local archives and local historical societies, among others, with a view to strengthening the understanding of our nation's historical heritage.

I have also been pleased to work with state archivists on developing plans for records recovery after natural disasters, such as the hurricanes that hit the Gulf Coast last summer. We have developed a program as “first preserver” and are taking the lead at the Federal level to make records preservation, recovery, and accessibility a part of the federal response plan.

Time does not allow me even to itemize the range of other initiatives already underway throughout the NARA family, many of which hold significant partnership opportunities—implicit or explicit—which we trust will attract our friends elsewhere in the archival community and among nonarchival stakeholders as well.

Earlier in my remarks, I mentioned the Archives’ Strategic Plan, which has been revised to take us through the period 2007 to 2017. During the revision period, we sought and received comments from your groups—SAA, NAGARA, and CoSA—for which we were grateful, as always.

We believe that your views, and those of our other stakeholder and customer groups, are important and allow us to continue to improve the way we provide ready access to the records that document the actions of our government, the rights of our citizens, and our national experience.

Again, thank you for inviting me to help close this week of important business for you. My colleagues at the national archives and i have been honored to be such an important part of your week, and we look forward to greeting you again here in Washington in the future.