About the National Archives

Address to the Society of American Archivists

August 13, 2009

It is a pleasure to join you here in Austin to discuss the common challenges we all face in caring for records. I am especially pleased that you have chosen to honor the National Archives on our 75th anniversary, and I thank you for this kind recognition.

On June 19, 1934 President Franklin Roosevelt signed the act that established the National Archives of the United States as well as the National Historical Publications Commission. Designed by architect John Russell Pope, the National Archives Building, in downtown Washington, DC, was already under construction, but there was no Archivist of the United States and Archives staff. A little more than a year later, the National Archives building was occupied by more than 200 employees, even though the building was still under construction. In 1936 the first records – mostly from the Veterans Administration and the U.S. Food Administration -- were moved into the Archives. It’s probably safe to say that NARA’s persistent challenge to find enough space for records began the day those first accessions arrived.

I believe that President Roosevelt, and R.D.W. Connor -- the first Archivist of the United States, and those first Archives employees would not recognize NARA today. We’ve grown to a Federal agency with around 3,000 employees working in facilities across the country to safeguard and provide access to more than nine billion records of the Federal Government.

But while we are very proud of our history at NARA, I don’t want to dwell on the past. Today I want to tell you a little of what we are doing to prepare for the future.

We are currently updating our Strategic Plan, which serves as our “roadmap” for achieving our long term goals. The Government Performance and Results Act requires all Federal agencies to update their strategic plans every three years. This update gives us a chance to reassess where we are in relation to the goals we set in 2006.

Our new plan addresses how changes in society and in the nature of records lead us to rethink the way we do business. We have developed new strategies to expand NARA’s leadership in Federal records management, including electronic records management.

Specifically, we will place more emphasis on:

  • Carrying out assessments and studies of records management in Federal agencies, and reporting on the results.
  • Examining our statutory and regulatory frameworks to determine if they meet 21st century needs, and making changes as needed.
  • Working with industry and academic experts to develop automated records management solutions to meet agency business needs and NARA requirements.
  • Developing the reimbursable records management services agencies need to address their physical records storage and retrieval needs, as well as their electronic records needs.

We are also laying out the marker as to what our job is in an electronic government. We are currently developing the Electronic Records Archives, or ERA, a system designed to preserve and provide long-term access to electronic records.

Currently, we are working with four pilot agencies on early usage of the system to include transfer, inspection, and storage of electronic records. We are also using ERA to facilitate the rapid ingest, search and retrieval of electronic records from the Executive Office of the President from the George W. Bush Administration.

During the next year we will develop the instance of ERA that will allow us to take in electronic records from the Congress and make them available to the public under Congressional access rules. But our responsibility in regard to electronic records is not just to build ERA. It is to identify permanently valuable electronic records wherever they are, capture them, and make them available in a usable form as quickly as the law allows. And we are committed to establishing an electronic records program that does this – one that is responsive to the federal agencies that create the records as well as to our customers who expect continuing access to our government’s records, whether those records are paper or digital.

As I’m sure you know, one of the biggest inherent challenges any archives faces is processing records in a timely manner. Archives have a processing backlog the minute they are created, and there are always people at your door clamoring for records that have not yet been processed.

At NARA we have a goal that commits us to processing 95 percent of our holdings to the point where researchers can have efficient access to them by 2016. And we are making outstanding progress. In our regions, as of August 1st, 39 percent of our holdings had been processed. Some of the essential elements we consider when declaring that records are processed are having them identified in a master location register, having them described in the Archival Research Catalog, known as ARC, and completing a preservation risk assessment. If the regions can maintain their processing at the current rate, their backlog of unprocessed records could be eliminated by 2011.

In Washington, DC, we faced a processing backlog of nearly one million cubic feet of archival records that lacked sufficient intellectual control to enable efficient and effective access. We had been trying to address this backlog on a part-time basis, with the staff involved also providing reference services, but we weren’t making enough progress. We reallocated resources to enable full time processing teams to function without interruption. By last October, we had eliminated 10 percent of the accumulated backlog and had curtailed backlog growth. We expect to eliminate another 10 percent by the end of this fiscal year.

Another initiative being added to our Strategic Plan that is aimed at getting more records to people who want to use them is the establishment of the new National Declassification Center. As you may know, the President has directed that Executive Order 12958, as amended, which governs the classification and declassification of national security information, be revised to reflect the on-going need to balance the needs of national security and the right of citizens to have access to the records of their government. The President has directed the inter-agency team tasked with drafting a revised Executive Order to include in its recommendations the establishment of a National Declassification Center to be located in NARA.

NARA has already begun the planning process with other Federal agencies to develop the concept of operations for the Center designed to improve work processes and develop innovative policies and strategies designed to increase the flow of declassified records to the public and at the same time protect information which must remain classified.

In 2007 NARA began a voluntary inter-agency program known as the National Declassification Initiative, or NDI. NDI was designed to more effectively manage multi-agency equity referrals, and deal with quality assurance issues. For years the pace of declassification has been slowed because the records have to pass through the hands of every agency that hold an equity in them. NDI brings all of the equity-holding agencies and the classified records together, which both increases security for the records and speeds the declassification process.

In effect, the NDI has proven to be a prototype for many of the concepts that form the basis for the National Declassification Center except agencies participation now will be mandatory rather than voluntary.

The bottom line here is that we are effectively reinventing the declassification process in order to get records into the hands of the American public more quickly and efficiently. We are proud to have the responsibility of establishing the National Declassification Center, and you will be hearing more about it in the near future.

One of NARA’s strategic goals states that we will provide prompt, easy, and secure access to our holdings, anywhere, anytime. As you can imagine, realizing this goal is very challenging.

The Internet has introduced countless researchers to the holdings of the National Archives. While we are thrilled that the desire for online information brings more and more people to our virtual doors, the task of building an “archives without walls,” so to speak, is a demanding one. An important part of our effort must be developing the means for archivists to interact with our virtual visitors.

This year, we worked to increase visibility and transparency of our online programs and services. We developed a web governance strategy to identify Web 2.0 technologies and social media tools that enhanced NARA’s interactive, collaborative, and participative relationships with Federal agencies, partners and the public.

We successfully launched a National Archives YouTube channel on June 19 – our 75th anniversary -- to share videos about our programs and events. A second channel, expected to launch next year, will feature videos from our holdings.

We piloted a blog and a Twitter site for our annual Records Administration Conference in May, and while that pilot was underway, we developed plans to implement a more robust network infrastructure to support multiple blogs, wikis and other database back-end products. We are making progress on developing a blog called “NARAtions,” which will offer a new question each week about research and access to our holdings.

In July we joined Flickr to share historic photos from our collections. Our photostream features some of NARA’s most popular photos, as well Women's Bureau photographs of women in the workplace during World War II, and photographs taken as part of the DOCUMERICA project sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency during the 1970s. So far our photos have received more than 38,000 views, about 200 tags, and several comments from the public.

On August 3, we launched two pages on Facebook. One page features programs and events sponsored and/or hosted by NARA and the second Facebook page is targeted to researchers. I hope that you will all become fans of our Facebook pages.

We implemented a social bookmarking technology on archives.gov that allows visitors to more easily bookmark our pages to their social networking pages on Facebook, MySpace etc and to share a page with their friends and colleagues. Since implementing this application on June 15, almost 5000 visitors have bookmarked pages from archives.gov to Facebook, Google Bookmarks, Twitter, MySpace, and other sites.

Web 2.0 technologies are powerful communication tools, and I know that our recent initiatives are just the tip of the iceberg of what is yet to come in this area.

As I mentioned a few minutes ago, I don’t think President Roosevelt could have ever imagined the National Archives that he championed so enthusiastically 75 years ago would grow and prosper to become what it is today. I am convinced he would be very proud of everyone who has worked for the agency over the years and contributed their skills, talent, and spirit to ensure that the records of the Government of the United States are safeguarded and made accessible to the American people.

It strikes me that as much as things may have changed at the National Archives in the past 75 years, and as much as the archival field in general has changed, the purpose of our work, and the passion and commitment with which this work is carried out has remained steadfast over the years. One thing is clear – we at NARA could not carry out our mission without the support of the great archival community, and I thank you all for that. Your involvement, and the involvement of all out stakeholders and partners adds invaluable expertise, depth, and richness to our programs and initiatives.

In the coming months, I look forward to introducing you to the new Archivist of the United States, Mr. David Ferriero, now awaiting Senate confirmation of his appointment. I am also looking forward to seeing everyone in Washington, DC, at next year’s conference.

It’s been a pleasure sharing this time with you. Thank You.