About the National Archives

Managing the Intangible: Creating, Storing and Retrieving Digital Surrogates of Historical Materials

"Managing the Intangible: Creating, Storing and Retrieving Digital Surrogates of Historical Materials," NARA's 21st Annual Preservation Conference

Opening Remarks by Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States
April 30, 2007, Adelphi, MD

Thank you, Doris*, and good morning everyone.

I would like to begin by acknowledging the talented team of National Archives staff members from the Special Media Preservation Laboratory who conceived and organized this very timely conference. The people of the Special Media Preservation Laboratory perform expert work in reformatting both the textual and non-textual records of the National Archives.

This conference also is the inauguration of the Presidential Libraries Audio Visual Archivists Conference—an opportunity for important discussion and collaboration on audio visual preservation across the National Archives system.

When our Founding Fathers finally agreed on the structure of the new government in 1787, they put it on four pages of parchment, called it the Constitution, and signed it. That parchment still exists, as part of the Charters of Freedom in the Rotunda of NARA headquarters on the National Mall. Reading it requires no special equipment.

Now, in the 21st century, we preserve our history and cultural heritage with a broad range of media. There are sound recordings, videotape, film, and, more recently, electronic media, such as CDs and DVDs.

Unlike the Constitution, however, some of these records require special equipment and special technologies to access—and keeping up with the changes in technology is a major challenge for this agency.

Much of the new technology comes from the private-sector marketplace, where preservation is the last thing on most manufacturers’ minds. Consequently, records are often created on unstable and short-lived media.

As a result, we are the ones who have to be flexible and creative and able to adapt to technological challenges. And to meet those challenges, even with our limited resources, NARA staff has developed an approach to preservation that is systemic, comprehensive, and flexible.

It involves a collection of tools and methods to deal with preservation of the records throughout their lifecycle:

  • archival processing, or the establishment of intellectual control;

  • holdings maintenance, by providing remedies to deficiencies in record housings;

  • environmental control, or minimizing future deterioration by providing and closely monitoring optimal storage environments for all media types;

  • careful handling and use of the records;

  • conservation, or stabilizing individual and groups of records through treatment; and

  • preservation reformatting.

Reformatting ensures that the information on deteriorating records or records requiring obsolete equipment is preserved as a new, state-of-the-art record, easily accessible to all.

At NARA, about 675 million pages and 12 million special media items are in need of preservation reformatting because of their deteriorated condition, obsolete format, and/or high use.

When properly planned and executed, reformatting achieves dramatic results by making it easier to conduct research on original materials while increasing access for staff, depositing agencies, researchers, and the public.

Without reformatting, 1) we will lose the sights and sounds of our history; 2) we will no longer be able to hear speeches that became turning points in our history; 3) we will no longer be able to see historic events, such as the D-day landings in World War II; and 4) we will no longer be able to view machine-dependent records that have already been reformatted, only to be left behind again as technology races forward.

Some textual records, such as the fragile and damaged Civil War muster rolls, are in danger of being totally lost unless they are reformatted for use in genealogy research. These and other records are at risk and require close attention to reformatting.

Reformatting is the most cost-beneficial and technically acceptable approach to preservation for machine-dependent deteriorating records such as sound and video recordings and motion pictures.

However, the new technologies and tools that are being created in the private-sector marketplace require us to be cautious, as well as flexible, in using them so that our work is successful and effective.

NARA serves American democracy by safeguarding and preserving the records of our government, ensuring that the American people can discover, use, and learn from this documentary heritage.

We ensure continuing access to the essential documentation of the rights of American citizens, the actions of their government, and the history of the national experience.

We provide this service to the American public not only at NARA’s 36 facilities in 17 states and the District of Columbia, but in their homes and in their children’s schools by way of the Internet and our extensive outreach programs.

These are, after all, their records, the American people’s records, and we strive every day to be responsible stewards and guardians of the history contained in those records.

Thank you for coming to this annual preservation conference, and I hope the time you spend here proves to be informative, insightful, and agreeable.

* Doris Hamburg, Director of NARA Preservation Programs.