About the National Archives

National Association of Secretaries of State

Remarks by Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States
July 18, 2007, Portland, OR

Thank you for inviting me to your annual meeting here in Portland and allowing me to update you on some recent activities at the National Archives.

My sources tell me that your current president, Deb Markowitz of Vermont, once "hung out" with archivists at their national meeting. So I thought that, at this meeting, I would return the favor—and hang out with secretaries of state.

As you all know, much of what we do at the National Archives is ensure the preservation of the documentation of our democracy—the rights guaranteed to citizens, accountability required of Government officials, and openness of the national experience.

For years, we have preserved the paper documents of all three branches of our national government—in boxes and folders. Now, increasingly, these records come to us electronically, in digital format. They come in large numbers, and unless we do something to preserve them—and they must be preserved—they will be at risk of inaccessibility or complete loss to future generations.

That’s why we at the National Archives and Records Administration are seeking a solution to the preservation challenge presented by electronic records, a challenge not just for us but for institutions throughout society.

Not only is the Federal Government producing electronic records that require preservation, but as you know, so are state and local governments, small businesses and large corporations, colleges and universities, doctors and hospitals, financial institutions, law enforcement agencies, and the courts.

Records of all types and at all levels could be lost if we don’t act soon to preserve them. They include the records of Presidents and vital national security documents, such as battle plans, weapons designs, and intelligence information. And they also include records of immigration and citizenship, military service and employment, and census data—all of them records americans need to document citizenship, guarantee rights, and preserve entitlements to government benefits.

The National Archives’ response to the challenge posed by an avalanche of electronic records is the Electronic Records Archives, or ERA. Over the past nine years, we have worked with more than 50 research partners in developing the ERA. They include the San Diego Supercomputer Center, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois, and our neighbor in College Park, the University of Maryland’s Institute for Advanced Computer Studies. The prime contractor for ERA is the Lockheed Martin Corporation.

ERA will be an "archives without walls." The goal is to provide access to all types of electronic records via the internet to anyone, anywhere, anytime— regardless of the hardware and software that was used to create the records or that will be available in the future.

We are building the system in five increments and hope to roll out increment one this winter. The first increment involves bringing in electronic records from four Federal agencies—the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command, and the National Nuclear Security Administration. Increment two will involve ingesting the records of President George W. Bush’s administration.

The initial system hardware for ERA has been delivered and installed in ERA’s operational center in Keyser, West Virginia, where software is being loaded and tested. We have also established a partnership with West Virginia University for collaborative research and long-term access to complex electronic records and engineering design documentation.

But I must emphasize that ERA is not just for NARA. Its benefits will affect everyone, and that’s because an additional and important aspect of ERA is its scalability.

The technology that ERA research is developing will be scalable so that it can be used by smaller archives at the state and local levels, and in colleges and universities, hospitals, financial institutions, and private businesses—throughout the entire society.

While ERA will allow us to effectively manage and make accessible the electronic records being created today and tomorrow, it will also allow us to make available many traditional paper records once they are digitized. There are many, many vital records now in paper form that need to be digitized and preserved electronically.

To achieve this massive and accelerated digitization, NARA is continuing an aggressive digitizing program with several partnerships in an effort to provide wider access to the billions of pages of textual records already housed in the National Archives nationwide.

Last year, a partnership was formed 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. Also, the National Archives has joined with Google in a pilot program to make some of our audiovisual holdings available online. Today, you can go to the Google web site and see a collection of NARA's rare, historical films.

Earlier this year, we entered into a partnership with Footnote, Inc., to digitize millions of records. Footnote is a subscription-based web service that features searchable original documents. So far, Footnote has digitized more than five million pages that are now available on its web site. After five years, everything that footnote has digitized will be available at no charge through NARA's web site. In the meantime, researchers can visit any National Archives research room around the country and access this material free of charge.

NARA is also working to develop its own capability to digitize and make available—electronically via the internet—collections of traditional paper records. And we are looking for additional partners to help us digitize records to further broaden accessibility.

Digitization of records is important to many of our customers—especially genealogists and those individuals seeking to trace family histories. Many of these documents are older records, fragile sheets of paper from early years of the nation.

To provide even greater access to the information in our holdings, we are working with a consortium of search engine operators—including Google, Yahoo, and MSN—to help them gain better access to two major databases that we operate and augment continually:

  • Access to Archival Databases (AAD) allows visitors to access nearly 74 million historic records, now in electronic form, created by more than 30 Federal agencies.
  • Archival Research Catalog (ARC) contains descriptions of more than 54 percent of our holdings nationwide.

At the moment, these search engines are not able to access the tens of millions of documents in AAD and ARC—thus making it difficult for researchers to discover valuable databases they would find useful. This will change, I hope, in the very near future.

We recently completed a successful pilot project involving Google, Yahoo, and MSN and are moving closer to the time when these and other Internet search engines can take users deeper into NARA’s wealth of information that will be available online. This will vastly increase access of researchers to the holdings of the National Archives nationwide.

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Preserving records sometimes involves risks that cannot always be predicted, and we learned a very difficult lesson in this regard in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast states.

Among others, I visited Mississippi and New Orleans to view the damage to archival records first-hand. Many individuals and families seeking disaster aid were unable to access records confirming citizenship, identity, and ownership of property. This must not happen ever again.

As a result of seeing these things first-hand, I came back convinced that we had to do more at all levels to protect citizens’ vital records, which are crucial to helping people get back on their feet after a disaster.

We are also working with the Council of State Archivists to prepare for natural and man-made disasters that threaten archives and records-storage locations around the country. One step that has been taken is the development by each state of a statewide plan for the preservation and accessibility of vital records in the event of a disaster. So far, each state has submitted at least a draft version of its plan.

We continue to pursue a seat at the Federal Emergency Management administration table, since archivists and officials in charge of public records are not now officially represented in the Department of Homeland Security’s current disaster response process. We believe it is necessary to make preserving vital records in a time of disaster a priority, essential to providing continuity in government and serving those citizens impacted by such a disaster.

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Why do we work so hard to ensure that these records are preserved for future generations? What makes them so important? The answer is obvious yet often neglected.

These government records represent the vigor and diversity of our American heritage. They are the primary cultural sources for those of us who (from divergent disciplines) study the past and seek to learn from it. These documents, photographs, films, and audio recordings embody the stories which we most treasure about our society. They allow us in both physical and metaphorical ways to "touch" the past, to comprehend what "eyewitnesses" saw or thought when the records were first created. They are as close as we can get to having been there.

They also have a more immediate function. Many of them—and many of the records for which you are directly responsible—are vital records for individuals and families. And these records are an important part of addressing what I have called the "civic literacy" issue, a major priority of the mission of the National Archives.

The "civic literacy" focus of the National Archives is an educational initiative that I have championed from the moment I arrived at the Archives two and a half years ago. I have repeatedly said that all of the outstanding records we preserve and make easily available will matter little to a citizenry that has lost touch with its own history.

For that reason, we must do all we can to lift the level of civic literacy in this country—insightful knowledge of history, civics, and the social sciences—and NARA is doing just that through our museum, education, outreach, and communications programs.

An example in the education field is NARA’s workshop called Primarily Teaching, now offered in multiple sessions throughout the country. Here teachers are prepared to use primary documents in teaching history, civics, and social studies. It’s important that we improve the teaching—and learning—of these subjects by making them come alive for students and teachers alike.

Two groundbreaking programs at the Presidential libraries—the White House Decision Center at the Truman Library and the Five Star Leaders program at the Eisenhower—allow students to learn history by taking on the roles of historical figures themselves, and by this time next year, NARA’s Learning Center programs—underwritten by a generous grant from Boeing—will be online and actively utilized by teachers, students, and civic groups.

All around the country, 37 NARA facilities—regional archives and Presidential libraries—are involved in partnerships and collaborations aimed at bringing more appreciation and knowledge of history to students and to help teachers make that learning experience meaningful and entertaining at the same time.

Am I simply dreaming when I see the potential for a partnership between the National Archives and your organization? When I see in front of me today a room full of would-be educators enlisting in the struggle to expand civic literacy in every state represented here? I hope not and will present some concrete ideas for fulfilling this role in the months ahead.

Thank you for inviting me to Portland this summer and I’d be delighted to take any questions you may have—after which I intend to simply "hang out" with the secretaries of state!