About the National Archives

State of the Archives Address

by Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States
November 30, 2006

Good day, ladies and gentlemen of NARA throughout the country, and welcome to my second State of the Archives talk. But just why is it a "good day" when the National Archives and Records Administration has been told to operate under a hiring freeze with reduced research hours and when the NARA budget would surely benefit from a gentle push upward?

Could it be simply because today, coincidentally, is the 171st anniversary of the birthday of noted American humorist Samuel Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain? Twain, of course, did not have the benefit of help from the National Archives and from our very able staff in assisting his research. Instead, he relied mainly on his memory which, like mine and yours, rarely improves with age. "When I was younger," Twain noted, "I could remember anything, whether it happened or not: but my faculties are decaying now, and soon I shall be so I cannot remember anything but the things that never happened."

No, it is more likely that what we remembered in this post-Thanksgiving season was to count our blessings that include who and where we are—and are not—remembering what sort of year it has been at the National Archives and why, despite all that we may wish for budgetarily, most of us still start each morning, each day, smiling.

Begin with the work itself, safeguarding the Charters of Freedom and the 85 billion pieces of paper under our vigilant care (including those in the Federal records centers)—in short, our primary obligations as NARA employees. But our freedoms and our opportunities as Americans tell the real tale, and, last time that I looked, lines formed wherever it was possible to enter the United States, not to leave it.

I just returned from a 190-nation conference of archivists—the International Council of Archivists—where one could identify quickly the successful from the unsuccessful countries, the former combining their freedoms with truth, leading authentic lives unmarked by extreme want or fear. The fortunates have not been compelled to join either the ranks of the million women, children, and men who are enslaved each year or the 20 million "people of concern" the United Nations High Commission on Refugees found in places like Darfur, the Balkans, the Middle East, and Africa—refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced or stateless, but in any case, homeless people. Whatever else might link the more unfortunate countries represented at the conference from the more fortunate depends upon the fact that the luckless ones all suffer from the absence of authentic, honest, legitimate records maintenance, past and present. The fortunate ones have exactly this capacity, with whatever flaws or problems that accompany it.

As you may have noticed, I have a lilt in my voice and a spring in my step today. Why? Because it is my belief that together—NARA employees and stakeholders, veterans and new recruits, National Archives senior staff, and our colleagues throughout the archival world—we can point with pride to a genuine sense of accomplishment since we last gathered here a year ago.

The past 22 months of my tenure as Archivist of the United States (to paraphrase a recent U.S. News and World Report issue on American leadership) has provided an opportunity to set directions: "by building a shared sense of purpose, by setting out to make a positive social impact, and by implementing innovative strategies." All of these are evident in NARA’s new and creative 10-year Strategic Plan, in the discussions of which over half the NARA work force and many of our stakeholders played a meaningful role.

And so I begin this brief review of the situation by thanking each and every one of you, whether here in Washington, DC, or throughout the country at any of NARA’s regional archives, Federal records centers, or Presidential libraries, for your personal effort over the past year in meeting the challenges that I set out only 12 months ago.

To begin with, we decided to write the Strategic Plan (to the extent possible) in plain English. Consider this clear summary statement: "The National Archives and Records Administration serves American democracy by safeguarding and preserving the records of our government, ensuring that 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."

To carry out our mission, the National Archives has set down six clearly stated broad goals in our Strategic Plan:

  • 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.
  • We will preserve and process records to ensure access by the public as soon as legally possible.
  • We will address the challenges of electronic records in Government to ensure success in fulfilling NARA’s mission in the digital era.
  • We will provide prompt, easy, and secure access to our holdings anywhere, anytime.
  • We will increase access to our records in ways that further strengthen civic literacy in America through our museum, public outreach, grants, and education programs.
  • We will equip NARA to meet the changing needs of our great customers.

Those are very fine words to insert in our Strategic Plan, of course, but they raise a question: Do they reflect the reality of our efforts as an agency? I think they do, and here is why.

As the nation’s record keeper, NARA is in the access business, and we are now actively engaged on many fronts to ensure, for generations to come, the preservation of and accessibility to the vital records we hold.

To deal with a huge backlog of traditional records—more than a million cubic feet—we have made major staff changes in our Washington, DC, research centers to expedite the processing of these records so that researchers can use them more easily. The result has involved the reassignment of a number of individuals to either full-time processing or full-time reference work. I want to thank those involved for their efforts in assisting in this area. Eliminating this backlog of unprocessed records is absolutely critical to NARA.

Many of the records which customers want to see are declassified records, and after the discovery early this year of activities aimed at reclassifying previously declassified records, with support from our senior managers, I took some major steps at reaffirming our commitment to transparency and maximal access.

First, in quiet discussions with the relevant agencies, we are now returning to the open shelves the overwhelming majority of the affected records. So far, 53 percent of the records removed have been released in full and 46 percent with some redactions.

Second, we are working with other agencies, with NARA’s Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) and our Washington, DC, Office of Records Services, in taking the lead on developing a Government-wide policy for the declassification of classified records. This is our National Declassification Initiative, and you’ll be hearing more about that.

Maximum, timely public access to information is necessary for citizens to be able to hold government officials accountable for their actions. It’s an essential component of a genuine democracy. Declassification, after all, is just one hurdle to public access; and access delayed can often mean access denied.

We are also moving ahead on schedule to ensure the preservation of and access to electronic records to respond to the urgent need which confronts us. We are building with our contractor, Lockheed Martin Corporation and the companies on its team, our Electronic Records Archives, or ERA. In developing plans for ERA, we have partnered with some of the nation’s leading research centers and universities. We have identified four agencies—test cases, if you will—whose records we will begin "ingesting" next year in increment one of ERA.

As the system’s development progresses, we look ahead to future researchers accessing traditional records by way of the ERA. To that end, we are moving ahead with digitizing projects for records now available only on paper or on microfilm. These are two more major steps toward our "archives without walls."

Earlier this year, we announced a partnership between the Kennedy Library and the EMC Corporation of suburban Boston to digitize the entire collection of papers, documents, photographs, and audio recordings of President Kennedy and make them accessible via the Internet, and we welcome similar projects for other NARA components. We also entered into an agreement with Google for a pilot program to make some of the National Archives’ holdings available online. Today, you can go to the Google site and see a collection of NARA’s rare and historical films.

As more and more of the Federal Government’s business is conducted electronically, we have moved quickly in response. Today, every agency and department can transmit documents to the Federal Register—which we publish in cooperation with the Government Printing Office—electronically, and 75 percent of all documents in the Federal Register are managed electronically. We have received much praise for the constantly updated electronic version of the Code of Federal Regulations, which is revised daily to reflect amendments published in the Federal Register.

The disasters of the past year or so have demonstrated the need for the National Archives to take the lead in preserving and maintaining access to valuable, vital records in the aftermath of natural disasters, such as the hurricanes that struck the Gulf Coast last year. We have now taken a lead role in making records preservation, recovery, and accessibility a part of the Federal disaster response plan. NARA is working with the Council of State Archivists, which elicited from each state a records recovery plan to be implemented in the event of a disaster. Presently, neither archives nor libraries nor museums have an adequate official status in FEMA’s disaster recovery matrix. Now, think about that for a second —50 states have each submitted plans for how to deal with records problems after a disaster. And that has taken place within the last year with NARA support.

Day in and day out, we continue to help agencies improve the management of their records, traditional and electronic, through special NARA programs. The Federal Records Center program saw its seventh year of profitability, bringing in more than $5 million in retained earnings. At the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, responses in less than 10 days to more than 1.2 million requests annually are now the rule, not the exception.

The numbers visiting NARA’s various installations in this past year—especially the Presidential libraries and regional archives—remain impressive. But these figures are topped by the million-plus visitors to National Archives headquarters in downtown Washington, DC, who now (thanks to visiting not only the Charters of Freedom in the Rotunda but the unique "Public Vaults" exhibit on American history and our engaging exhibits in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery) remain in the building for well over an hour. What used to be a five-minute visit—Mom, Dad to take you to look at the Charters and you're gone—and now it takes them more than an hour. It's wonderful.

Throughout the National Archives system, in fact, educational programs are expanding greatly in number and range—and this in the absence of supplemental funding to cover their costs. We have begun to make measurable progress on our goal of helping to improve the civic literacy of the American people so that they can more readily appreciate the history of our country and their place in it.

To increase the level of civic literacy, we have enhanced and expanded our various museum, education, communications, and public outreach programs. We have done so with the help of our partners, especially the Foundation for the National Archives.

These educational activities have been robust at NARA for years, of course, not only here in Washington but in the libraries and regional archives. Now, they have an epicenter in our new Learning Center, which will be fully open next spring at Archives I for use by teachers seeking new ways to use primary documents to make the study of history and social studies more engaging and interesting for students and teachers alike.

But the Learning Center is hardly the only place where we have been enhancing our education efforts. This past year, we offered our highly successful "Primarily Teaching" workshop for teachers not only here in Washington as in past years but also at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and the Pacific Regional Archives in Laguna Niguel, California.

We also aim our "civic literacy" programs at adults. This past year, for the first time, all the Presidential libraries co-sponsored, at the Kennedy Library, a symposium on the Vietnam War that featured some of the top policy-makers from the Kennedy through Clinton administrations. The symposium sessions were telecast nationally in their entirety on C-SPAN.

In a few weeks, we will inaugurate a new partnership with the National Park Service with the opening of a special exhibit at historic Federal Hall in New York City, the site of the nation’s first capital under the Constitution. Elsewhere, if and when funding permits, we plan to move several regional archives to new quarters in the hearts of their respective cities’ cultural centers.

NARA programs will also receive more exposure next year through C-SPAN, which will feature 12 two-hour programs, one each month in prime time, in a special series on the Presidential libraries.

These libraries continue to grow, both in numbers and as a system. Staff from many parts of NARA have been working with the Nixon Foundation to prepare the Nixon Library for transition. I am pleased to have appointed Dr. Timothy Naftali, a noted historian, as the first director of the Nixon Library within NARA. Also, planning for our other new Presidential library, that of the current president, George W. Bush, is well under way.

In pursuit of our goals, the National Archives in the past year forged new partnerships with customer and stakeholder groups, other government agencies, and private companies—here in Washington and all around the country.

We welcomed to Washington, in their first-ever joint meeting, some 2,100 archivists who are members of the Society of American Archivists, the Council of State Archivists, and the National Association of Government Archives and Records Managers.

More than 100 NARA staff members participated in the conference, and the meeting allowed us to strengthen our partnerships with all of these groups which are so essential to helping us meet the challenges ahead.

Throughout the year, I spoke to a wide range of archival, genealogical, and historians’ groups, but also to a significant number of civic, library, and museum associations in an effort to strengthen our relationships with all of these as we seek common ground.

I would be remiss in this connection if I did not mention the role of these groups in supporting restoration of funding for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), which I also strongly support, and our cooperative efforts in urging full funding for the innovative "Partnership for the American Historical Record" (PAHR), which I also support. Let me take this opportunity to compliment Max Evans and the NHPRC staff who are working with dedication despite the cloud of fiscal uncertainty. I ask Max and his colleagues to please stand and be recognized.

I have already noted our cooperation with other archival groups in the post-disaster "emergency preparedness initiative" and am pleased that several key leaders of these various groups—all good friends and supporters of NARA—are in the audience today. Can I ask them to stand and be recognized? Nancy Beaumont of the Society of American Archivists. Karl Niederer and Jerry Handfield of the Council of State Archivists. Paul Bergeron of the National Association of Government Archives and Records Managers. Arnita Jones from the American Historical Association, and Leslie Reynolds of the National Association of Secretaries of State.

I would be equally remiss by not acknowledging also a wide variety of friends of the Archives in both houses of Congress and in both political parties—members, staff, and their families—who have visited our facilities here and around the country on many occasions and whose support for our programs has been generous and timely.

Please add to this list of friends for all seasons some significant supporters in the White House. And, if I can be indulged for a personal expression of thanks, I would add the four former Presidents and First Ladies—Presidents and Mrs. Carter, Ford, George H.W. Bush, and Clinton, and the former First Ladies, Lady Bird Johnson and Nancy Reagan. Their personal support for the National Archives and Records Administration and for this Archivist is deeply appreciated

I would be unworthy of holding this position if I did not bring into this circle of acknowledgement the men and women of the National Archives’ senior staff: the most able and dedicated people in government so far as I am concerned, and deeply responsible for the continuing education of this late-in-life convert from history to archives, a recovering academic turned administrator. In this connection, we owe a special vote of thanks to the staff responsible for the work leading to our most successful audit evaluation yet. May I ask all of the senior staff to stand and receive this quite justified appreciation of your colleagues.

I need now to express our most profound appreciation to those NARA employees who labored to restore matters to their normal state during and after the flooding at Archives I and at Suitland. Those of you who worked on either front, please stand and be recognized.

I want to say a word about an often-neglected component of the NARA family, the Office of the Inspector General. And especially about three current senior members of that office whose dedication to their duties over this past year deserves our recognition. I would ask James Spring, Kelly Maltagliati, and Ross Weiland to stand and receive the appreciation of this Archivist and of all those who share my commitment to the integrity of the OIG’s function and to a NARA free of waste, fraud, or mismanagement.

In the year ahead, we will pursue our strategic goals vigorously while recognizing the limited fiscal resources at our command now and in the foreseeable future. Is there some contradiction in that? Not if you recall the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald’s observation that the test of a civilized intelligence is the ability to keep two opposed ideas in the mind at once while retaining the capacity to function.

And function we will, with the invaluable help of our partners in and out of government; new and old; national, regional, and local; professional and personal; beginning with our friends and supporters on the staff and board of directors of the Foundation for the National Archives headed by Chairman Tom Wheeler and Executive Director Thora Colot. Those of you involved with the Foundation for the National Archives, please stand and let us thank you properly.

Last, but certainly not least, I want to acknowledge the dedication, hard work, creativity, and yes, the occasional combustibility of my talented personal staff. I would ask Donna Gold, Deb Wall, David Brown, Carl Rauscher, Jackie Budell, Sam Anthony, and Chrisa Rich to stand and let me say a deeply felt thanks to each and every one of you.

I have not been brief in this talk so far, so let me sum up. The Archivist has closed the door on 2006 with the following sentence or two: Staff morale remains solid despite hiring freeze: Budget needs fattening up (but not the Archivist): the place is jumping, NARA is alive and well on all fronts, and it’s time for awards, food and drink.

I'm the fellow who used to start his speeches by saying the four most dangerous words in the English language which are "I will be brief." And the point is I have not been as brief as usual in this talk so far. So allow me to sum things up briefly. I conclude with a well-known cautionary word for speakers like myself from no less than Winston Churchill. At one point in his career, he took to distributing copies of his recent speeches in Parliament. A political opponent acknowledged the gift and wrote Churchill: "Dear sir. Thanks for the copy of your recent speeches…I shall lose no time in reading them."

Thank you for listening. The work continues…