Annual Meeting of the Society of American Archivists, 2007
Closing Plenary Session
Remarks by Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States
September 1, 2007, Chicago, IL
Good afternoon, new "macho heroes (and heroines) of Washington"—and good afternoon to the rest of us. A folk tale from the decidedly un-macho ghettos of pre–World War I Eastern Europe described a raggedy and evidently impoverished elderly figure sitting on a bench in the town square when a stranger approached and asked what he was doing there.
"Waiting for the messiah" came the immediate answer.
"Really?" the stranger responded, "and the town pays you for this?"
"Yes, but barely enough for me to survive on."
"And for how long have you been doing this?"
"All of my life."
"So, you are ill-paid and ill-maintained, but you must get great respect for your work."
"Not much," came the response.
"What, no macho hero you?"
"Then why, sir, in these circumstances do you persist?"
"Look, stranger," the old man responded. "All of your criticisms are true, but consider . . . the work is steady."
With apologies to the late Irving Howe, who titled his memoir Steady Work and used this story, I submit this as the genuine archivist's lament and should probably shuffle off the platform at this point after tucking my pens in my pocket protector (essential equipment for archivists, as Maureen Dowd noted in her New York Times column). Neither am I nor is any other archivist at NARA a "macho hero" simply for doing our job any more than I can claim to be the genuine "Alchemist of the United States," as I was once introduced shortly after becoming Archivist.
Today, I want to report to the SAA and bring you up to date on some of our work since we met in Washington last August and to thank you for the support I have received from the SAA during a sometimes difficult year. I also want to acknowledge my colleagues at the NARA regional archives and records center right here in Chicago, many of whom helped plan this conference. But I begin, of course, with another story.
Each morning as I get to work at the National Archives Building near the Mall in downtown Washington, I walk past a simple stone tablet in memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, placed there after he died at FDR’s expressed wish as what he hoped would be his major memorial in D.C., and I reflect on President Roosevelt’s letter to the then-SAA President, who had been the first Archivist of the United States, Professor R.D.W. Connor, written on February 13, 1942, shortly after the U.S. joined the Second World War.
"May I tell you how very much honored I am," FDR wrote, "by my election as an Honorary Member of the Society of American Archivists? . . . At this time, and because of the conditions of modern war against which none of us can guess the future, it is my hope that the Society of American Archivists will do all that is possible to build up an American public opinion in favor of what might be called the only form of insurance that will stand the test of time. . . . The Society can count on my continued support in the fine work which it is doing. Always sincerely, Franklin D. Roosevelt."
The law creating our National Archives was signed by President Roosevelt, who also created the first modern Presidential library (which he deeded to the country). We will celebrate in 2009 the 75th anniversary of the National Archives and Records Administration.
Since we last met, the National Archives has had a busy year. The mission of preserving all the important records our government produces brings with it several challenges. We race to keep up with the fast-growing numbers of records, both paper and electronic, and the types of records, from e-mails to satellite imagery. At the same time, we must keep up with the technologies needed not just to preserve the records but to maintain their accessibility far into the future.
I believe we are meeting these challenges. For example, we now are able to respond to requests for documents and records in a more timely fashion than just a few years ago, and we are constantly adding to our web site, www.archives.gov, more of the documents that are most frequently requested by the public. Moreover, we have been able to move ahead with new and exciting access initiatives, despite limits on appropriations, and we are making progress in the race with technology.
The initial implementation of automatic declassification on December 31, 2006, has presented NARA staff with a formidable task. Although 460 million pages of federal records have already been reviewed by the agencies and released by NARA under Executive Order 12958, there are still 160,000 cubic feet, or approximately another 400,000,000 pages, remaining to be processed for release by NARA. To accomplish this, we reorganized staff to double the number of people assigned to declassification and reshuffled other functions.
There are several challenges to continued progress. The first are two sides of the same coin: the need for NARA to make available to agencies all referrals so that they can abide by the governing order’s intended deadline of December 2009 and inadequate NARA staff to accomplish this. While we have released 1.8 million pages of declassified records this fiscal year, our current work plan calls for processing 54,000 cubic feet of records for the referral center, an amount necessary if we are to accomplish our part in assisting agencies in meeting the intended 2009 deadline.
To date, however, we have processed only about 18 percent of these records, considerably less than the rate needed to complete the work plan. Clearly, even with continued refinements of our processes, without either relief from the intended deadline or a significant increase in staff, we cannot process records fast enough.
The most likely solution is continued improvements to our business processes and possible relief from the deadline. While some options for relief may become available, we must nonetheless ensure that records that can be processed without referral are done so expeditiously and that those that require referral are prioritized to ensure the most significant records are made available first.
Using the Remote Archives Capture, a project for digitizing classified materials, the Presidential libraries were able to meet the deadline for referral of all 25-year-old classified textual materials.
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It is no secret that in NARA’s arm-wrestle with budget austerity, we strive to do more with less—much more. We implemented a temporary hiring freeze last year and cut back on discretionary spending. We also had to make some tough choices in the area of customer service, such as increasing reproduction fees and temporarily reducing research hours—prompted by the need to stay within budget while still meeting all fixed costs. We hope to return to our previous hours as soon as congressional appropriations allow, which may happen with fiscal year 2008 appropriations.
Even while taking these budgetary measures, we have been able to increase public access to government records. As I have said oftentimes, the National Archives is in the access business. Consider some yardsticks.
First, let’s look at Freedom of Information Act requests. So far this fiscal year, we have significantly improved our performance rate in responding to FOIA requests for Federal records.
From last October through this past July, NARA completed 87 percent of requests within 20 days, which exceeds our target goal of 85 percent. This rate is six percentage points above the 2005 rate of 81 percent.
Over the last two years, nearly three-quarters of all FOIA requests were completed by NARA staff in 10 working days—half the time required by law.
We’ve also taken other steps to increase and broaden access to the records we hold in trust for the American people. Work is progressing steadily on the Electronic Records Archives, or ERA, which will eventually hold all the electronic records of government and allow access to anyone, anywhere, anytime, well into the future, regardless of the hardware or software available now or then.
In the meantime, our online Archival Research Catalog, or ARC, now contains descriptions at the series level of more than 55 percent of NARA’s holdings nationwide. ARC can be accessed on our web site at www.archives.gov/research/search/.
To provide greater access to important and frequently requested paper records and historic footage, we have entered into partnerships with several outside firms. And recently, we completed a successful pilot project involving Google, Yahoo, and MSN, which has moved us closer to the time when these and other giant search engines can take Internet visitors deeper into NARA’s wealth of information.
Significantly, in the next week or so, NARA will issue for public comment our plan for digitizing traditional records in our holdings. It contains proposed principles for engaging in partnerships to digitize and provide access to our holdings while always protecting the public trust.
Other NARA efforts to broaden access have encountered resistance. NARA’s Information Security Oversight Office, or ISOO, for example, is charged with overseeing security classification programs in both government and industry. As part of that mission, it monitors classification programs at about 65 executive branch departments and independent agencies, and it is heavily involved in overseeing implementation of the Presidential Executive order governing the classification, handling, and declassification of national security information.
Recently, however, ISOO has attempted to resolve a dispute over determining the extent to which the current Executive order applied to the Office of the Vice President (OVP), whose spokesperson said earlier this year that the existing Executive order governing classified national security information did not apply, since the OVP functions in both the legislative and executive branch.
Several stakeholder groups, including the Federation of American Scientists, have lodged complaints about this unprecedented claim of exemption by the OVP, and ISOO is required under the Executive order to acknowledge and respond to such complaints. Meanwhile, the White House has stated that the President does not consider either his office or the Vice President’s office to be an "agency" under the Executive order.
As for the National Archives, we continue to cooperate fully and courteously with all relevant parties to try to ensure a clear and consistent understanding as to how the order governing the oversight of classified national security information applies to all elements of the executive branch.
On the legal front, NARA faces several lawsuits involving records under the Presidential Records Act (PRA). Judicial Watch has filed a lawsuit involving a FOIA request at the Clinton Presidential Library for various records of Senator Hillary Clinton when she was First Lady.
The Clinton Library, like other units in NARA, normally responds to FOIA requests on a first-come, first-served basis, and we are dealing with the request for Senator Clinton’s records in the same manner as other requests we receive. I should note that even after FOIA review, the records in question are subject to review under the Executive order by the former President and the current President while being considered for release.
Having said that, we do expect that Senator Clinton’s daily schedules as First Lady, which had been requested earlier by another person, will be completely processed by the Archives and ready for the next step in the pre-release review within months.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) has filed two lawsuits against NARA in the past year. One seeks the White House entry records of the current administration that are managed by the Secret Service, but which have been determined to be Presidential records; the case also alleges that NARA failed to take appropriate action under the Federal Records Act. The other is a FOIA lawsuit for NARA operational records relating to internal deliberations about the status of these White House entry records. We have released some documents, but have withheld others subject to the deliberative and attorney work product privileges. Both cases are awaiting district court rulings.
The American Historical Association and several other plaintiffs have had a case pending for six years, in which they assert that certain provisions of President Bush’s 2001 Executive order relating to Presidential records violate the Presidential Records Act.
I should note that the volume of records created during each Presidential administration has increased steadily. For instance, during President Reagan's two terms in office, the White House generated almost 44 million textual pages of Presidential records. By comparison, in 2001 NARA took in 78 million textual pages of Clinton Presidential records. Additionally, the Clinton administration generated more than 20 million e-mails, which if printed, would surpass the number of textual pages of Presidential records generated by President George H.W. Bush's administration.
At the same time, there has been an increase in the number of FOIA requests filed at the Presidential libraries. The Reagan Library received just over 100 FOIA requests the first year it was subject to FOIA, and the Bush Library received 91 FOIA requests. The Clinton Library received 336 requests in that same time frame.
The archival staff has not increased at newer Presidential libraries to keep pace with their larger holdings. In fact, staff numbers have remained virtually unchanged. There are only 27 archivists at all three PRA libraries to handle a considerable backlog: Reagan Library, 1.2 million pages; Bush Library 2.2 million pages; and Clinton Library a 10 million-page backlog after less than two years of being open to FOIA.
On a more positive note, despite backlogs, NARA has opened more than 2.4 million pages in accordance with the PRA and the executive order, and only 34 pages of unique records have been withheld under an assertion of privilege. Thus, under E.O. 13233, NARA has opened over 99.99 percent of the Presidential records that have been reviewed by the former and incumbent Presidents.
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Turning to one previously vexatious matter, as you must know, the formerly private Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, California, was transferred to the National Archives in July and is now known as the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, with the historian Timothy Naftali, whom I appointed, as its director. As a result of this agreement and the transfer of oversight this summer, the three decades of contention over the Nixon tapes and papers came to a brisk and amicable conclusion in this Federally managed facility accessible to all visitors, scholars, and perspectives on the Nixon Presidency.
At the time of the transfer, we also made public—on the Internet—an additional 11½ hours of taped conversations and 78,000 pages of previously withheld Nixon material. And there will be more to come. As all of the records of the life of Richard Nixon are brought together, NARA will continue to increase access to them, at the library in Yorba Linda, at our facility in College Park, Maryland, and on the Internet. Many of the records will physically remain in College Park until a suitable Yorba Linda annex to the newest Presidential library is built.
We are also making preparations for accepting the records of the administration of President George W. Bush on January 20, 2009. We have already provided the Bush Library Foundation with our architectural and design standards, so that when the library is turned over to the government, it will meet those standards.
At the same time, our 12 Presidential libraries have developed a number of system-wide and bilateral projects that have included the Vietnam Conference at the Kennedy Library in early 2006, and the forthcoming conference in November on the Supreme Court and the Presidency at the Roosevelt Library. Together, the libraries have also launched on the Internet a Presidential Timeline, a source of documents, photographs and audio and video clips and education-based activities.
C-SPAN begins on September 7 a series of two-hour, prime-time, live programs from the 12 Presidential libraries in sequence from Hoover to Clinton.
These activities are bringing the stories of our Presidents and their experiences to more Americans and contribute meaningfully to NARA’s efforts to improve the level of civic literacy throughout the country.
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The National Archives is committed to building a workforce that represents the public we serve. Indeed, Goal 6 of our Strategic Plan commits us to recruiting and developing a diverse workforce to better serve a diverse public. In support of this goal, we are expanding recruitment outreach efforts to build awareness and enthusiasm for archival careers among groups that traditionally have been underrepresented in the Archives workforce.
Most notably, NARA has established a partnership with the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) to help us recruit the nation's best and brightest to perform internships at the National Archives. This past summer, we were joined by 10 HACU interns who performed internships at National Archives facilities across the country—in Washington, D.C.; at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, CA; at the Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, CA; and here in Chicago at the Chicago regional archives.
Many of these students had never considered an archival career before performing their internship with us. But after spending the summer with us, almost all of them expressed interest in pursuing archives-related careers on a permanent basis, and one of them is already on his way, having recently accepted a student position in our Office of Records Services–Washington, D.C.
In addition to our partnership with HACU, the National Archives is also working closely with the Gates Millennium Scholars Program, a scholarship program designed to promote academic excellence and to provide an opportunity for outstanding minority students with significant financial need to reach their highest potential. The Gates Program is particularly interested in increasing minority representation in disciplines where minorities have traditionally been underrepresented—disciplines including library science.
In support of this goal, the National Archives is partnering with the Gates Program and the University of Maryland this fall to sponsor the program's first ever "Graduate Institute" for scholarship recipients who are interested in pursuing careers in library, archives, or information science. Through this and other initiatives, the National Archives has begun playing a vital role in educating talented minority students about the value of archival careers.
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Now, back to the National Archives budget. The Congress is working on all of the various appropriation bills for fiscal year 2008, which begins October 1, 2007. The House has passed a version of NARA’s budget, and the Senate version has been approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee and is ready for floor action. Appropriately, both House and Senate support an increase in general funding for the Archives.
Both bills restore significant funding for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the NHPRC, although the President’s budget did not request funding for the NHPRC for next year.
Both the House and Senate committee versions of our appropriations bill provide funding to allow us to restore hours of operation at our research facilities to what they were before last year’s reduction. The House has also included funds to hire additional staff to process the huge backlog of unprocessed records.
In other legislation, both chambers have passed bills creating a FOIA expediting ombudsman, or National Information Advocate, within the National Archives. And both chambers have approved legislation calling for more reporting of donations to Presidential library foundations. We will also be talking to lawmakers in the House and Senate soon about legislation for NHPRC reauthorization, which expires after fiscal year 2009.
At this time, I would like to thank the chairmen, ranking members, and staffs especially of our two appropriations sub-committees, Representatives Jose Serrano of New York and Ralph Regula of Ohio and Senators Richard Durbin of Illinois and Sam Brownback of Kansas. Frankly, all of our congressional overseers in both houses and both parties and their colleagues and staffs have been consistently supportive of NARA’s mission and programs.
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As you know, NARA is operating under a new Strategic Plan that will take the agency through the year 2016. This plan offered some major changes to earlier plans designed to make the National Archives an even more efficient, customer-oriented Federal agency. I believe that we have begun to make significant progress in the major directions cited in the Strategic Plan:
- Solving the challenges of Federal electronic records;
- Eliminating the backlog of unprocessed records, including classified records;
- Expanding education programs to advance civic literacy;
- Increasing online access to NARA holdings;
- Continuing strong leadership in Federal records management;
- Forming partnerships with non-government entities to further our goals; and
- Creating an important role for NARA in Federal disaster response.
I remind you that NARA’s total holdings now exceed 10 billion documents, held in sacred trust for the American people, as our mission statement makes clear:
"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. . . ."
As Americans confront today’s challenges, this Archivist and his colleagues at the National Archives have a simple message across time to those who have fought to preserve our liberties—from the Revolution to the present time.
We will continue to safeguard these records 24/7 and live up to our responsibility to make them maximally accessible in a timely manner without exception, evasion, or excision.
The National Archives, beginning in the founding days of FDR and Professor Connor, looked to the Society of American Archivists for information, ideas, analysis, and support as we at the National Archives do today. You provide invaluable friendship and guidance, and I thank you for having invited me here today to speak with you and not to you, to listen to you, and to learn. I thank you for your counsel and your commitment to the archival and recordkeeping missions. Finally, like others before me, I salute you, "macho heroes and heroines" of the Society of American Archivists. Keep your pocket protectors "dry" and remember—the work continues. Thank you.