About the National Archives

National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators

Remarks by Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States
July 19, 2007, Kansas City, MO

Thank you, NAGARA, for inviting me to your annual meeting here in Kansas City and allowing me to update you on some activities at the National Archives.

I first want to say something about a gentleman who was once the president of your organization and who most recently has been Deputy Archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration—Dr. Lewis Bellardo. Lew plans to retire from NARA later this year, and we will miss his knowledge and wisdom, as well as his good company. I will miss a friend and valued adviser, especially on a number of issues important to NAGARA.

Lew has served NARA ably as Deputy Archivist and Chief of Staff since 1995. During that time, he led the visionary redesign of NARA's records management program for the entire Federal Government. He has also been instrumental in establishing and guiding the current Electronic Records Archives program, which I will say more about in just a few moments.

Dr. Bellardo represented NARA externally and led the Interagency Electronic Records Work Group, served on the Interagency Committee on Government Information, and participated in the Council of Chief Information Officers of the Federal Government. He has also represented NARA in the work of international standards bodies, at national and international meetings, and before congressional committees. Before joining NARA in 1989, he served as the director of the Georgia Historical Society and as State Archivist and Records Administrator of Kentucky.

I know you all join me in wishing Lew a happy and well-deserved retirement and in welcoming his successor, Adrienne Thomas, currently serving as Assistant Archivist for Administration.

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 Federal Government—in boxes and folders. Now, increasingly, these records come to us electronically, in digital format and in great numbers. And they must be preserved; unless we do so, they will—as you well know, for you face the same challenge—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. It is a challenge not only 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 small businesses and large corporations, colleges and universities, doctors and hospitals, financial institutions, and law enforcement agencies and the courts—and, of course, every state and local government office.

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. But they also include records of immigration and citizenship, military service and employment, property ownership and voter registration, and census data—all of them documents Americans need to verify citizenship, guarantee rights, and preserve entitlements to government benefits.

NARA’s 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. This first increment involves bringing in electronic records from four Federal agencies—the Patent and Trademark Office, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command, and the National Nuclear Security Administration. Increment two will ingest 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 here today that ERA is not just for the National Archives. It’s for all of you, too; its benefits will affect everyone. 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.

But while ERA will take in today’s and tomorrow’s electronic records and preserve them and make them accessible for generations to come, it must do more. If indeed we are to make public records more and more accessible, we must also think about those records that already exist—in paper form.

To that end, we must turn these records into electronic records also, and that involves efforts in digitizing.

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 between the Kennedy Library and the EMC Corporation of suburban Boston was formed 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 5 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 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, often fragile pieces 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) now 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 search engines can take users deeper into NARA’s wealth of information that will be available online. This will vastly increase access to National Archives’ holdings.

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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.

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 the vital records our citizens need to document citizenship and eligibility for government benefits, prove ownership of property and bank accounts, and begin to get back on their feet after a disaster.

I charged Howard Lowell to work with the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) and all of you through the Council of State Archivists and NAGARA 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 FEMA 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.

Meanwhile, we are continuing and advancing the work in records management that lew bellardo has set in motion.

We’ve created new courses in electronic records management, and, in line with our concerns about disasters, courses on vital records and records emergency planning and response. COSA is currently working with us to see how we might deliver this training content to the more than 81,000 state and local government units across the country.

We’ve also launched a "toolkit" for electronic records management. And we’ve developed tools to integrate records management requirements into the structure of federal agencies and help them make good record keeping practices part of everything they do.

We should also remember the words of arguably the most important man to grow up in the Kansas City area, Harry S. Truman, who famously observed that "The buck stops here."

And so it does with all of us, the stewards of the records of the past and of our times. It’s a great responsibility. And it’s a great honor. But it’s also a great opportunity for us all. I’m proud to stand with you in taking up the challenge.

Now, I’d be delighted to take any questions you might have.