About the National Archives

Prepared Remarks of Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero for the annual Richard G. Hewlett Lecture of the Society for History in the Federal Government. "The View from Washington: The First 355 Days."

October 27, 2010

Who is the Archivist?

David S. Ferriero

David S. Ferriero The Archivist of the United States is the head of our agency, appointed by the President of the United States.

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What's an Archivist?

Thanks for the invitation to speak with you this evening. 

I am particularly honored to be delivering the Richard Greening Hewlett Lecture.  Reading about Dr. Hewlett’s accomplishments brought me back to my roots at MIT—both professional.  His work on the Atomic Energy Commission depended heavily on work done at MIT in the years leading up to World War II. 

And as a young shelver in the MIT Science Library I was responsible for reshelving those reports every morning!

Soon after Dr. Hewlett enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and was sent to Bowdoin to study science and then he was sent to Harvard to study in the electronics school.  It was really the MIT Radar School where my late father-in-law was an instructor.  So, as you can see, the named lecture has special meaning for me.     

The Archives and the Society have had a long and fruitful relationship and we consider you a valuable partner in helping us preserve the historic record of our nation’s and our people’s democratic experience.

Tonight is an opportunity for me to reflect on my first 355 days as Archivist of the United States and to share with you a little history and a little crystal ball gazing—a look back and a look forward.  It has been a challenging and exciting year for me—heading an agency that is unique in government and vitally important to our democracy.

NARA’s role in government is clear and simple: We are the nation’s record keeper. We safeguard and preserve the records of our Federal Government and make them easily accessible so our citizens can use them and learn from them.

The records that end up in our permanent holdings represent only about 2 to 3 percent of all those created by federal departments and agencies.

But they are the most important records.

Once upon a time—and not so long ago—these records were all on paper, and we provided access to them wherever they were located among the National Archives facilities around the country:

  • 14 Regional Archives
  • 17 Federal Records Centers
  • 13 Presidential Libraries
  • The National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, and
  • Our Facilities in the Washington area.

In all these locations, we have accessioned as permanent records more than 10 billion pages of textual documents; 7.2 million maps, charts, and architectural drawings; more than 14 million still photographs; billions of machine-readable data sets; and more than 365,000 reels of film and 110,000 videotapes.

And, in the fastest growing category, we have around 100 terabytes of electronic records—81 of these terabytes are from the George W. Bush White House alone.

Over the years, millions of people have come to us for information to construct their family history, secure military records, do research for articles, books, and dissertations, or prepare legal briefs.

Now, for so many of these things, they can visit us on the Internet.

Let me share a couple of stories with you about ordinary, yet extraordinary, moments in the Archives:

A man walked into a regional center with a letter dated May 1946, recommending his dad for the Bronze Star.  The medal had never been awarded, and the son wondered whether there was an oversight or had the recommendation not been approved.  Staff at the St. Louis Military Personnel Records Center made this case a priority and found additional documentation.  Through our efforts, it was determined that he was entitled to the Bronze Star.  Just two days after his 100th birthday, and 63 years after the recommendation was written, in a ceremony arranged by the National Archives regional office, local Army officials presented Walter Pierce with the Bronze star.

In Alaska, the granddaughter of an 88-year-old Anchorage resident visited to obtain a certified copy of his 1958 divorce decree.  Prior to Alaska statehood in 1959, the U.S. District Court, handled divorce cases, so the file was in Federal hands.  We quickly found the final decree and “made her day.”  Her grandfather in a nursing home was waiting for proof of his divorce—so he could remarry!

* * *

The past 355 days have been a very busy and very enlightening time for me. Apart from my four years in the Navy, it’s the first time I’ve worked for the Federal Government. Although I came here from a large institution, the New York Public Libraries, the experience has proved for me to be different  . . . and disturbing.

When I arrived, I found an agency that lagged in adapting to new technologies.

I found an agency that needs to be more nimble. 

I found an agency that needs to take risks in trying new approaches to recordkeeping.

I found an agency that needs to make smarter and more creative use of technology.

I found an agency in need of a culture change to be able to exist and thrive in the digital age.

But I also found a means to help me begin to bring about that culture change:  President Obama’s Open Government Initiative.

The President began his administration with an Open Government Initiative to create a culture of transparency, participation, and collaboration in and among Federal agencies. The goal: Transform the relationship between government and the people.

The principles of open government—as outlined by the President—are, to a great extent, already embedded in the mission statement and strategic goals of the National Archives and Records Administration.

After all, the essence of the work we do every day is the belief that citizens have the right to see, examine, and learn from the records that document the actions of their government.  But in this digital age, we have the opportunity to do more.   

In response to the President’s request of all agencies and departments, we developed our own Open Government Plan.  And, in keeping with his Open Government Initiative, we are working to encourage more participation and collaboration in our work, both with the public and our staff, and to do it in a transparent way.

We are leveraging the power of the Internet to make our records more easily available, as well as to improve our engagement with employees and the public.  This includes:

  • Redesigning our main web site to maximize public participation as well as develop streamlined search capabilities.
  • Going beyond our main web site to reach public users where they are by using social media tools such as Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, and Twitter.
  • Seeking employee engagement through blogs, webinars and other social media tools to allow greater communication among staff and management located in 18 states and the District of Columbia.
  • Publishing high value data sets to allow the public to take government information and create new interfaces or innovative online experiences. 

Some other things going on to advance “open government” involve three important “offices” within NARA that have government-wide responsibilities. They are the National Declassification Center, the Office of Government Information Services, and the Information Security Oversight Office.

The mere existence within NARA of these “offices” reflects the favorable view of the Archives held by Congress and the President.

First, the National Declassification Center.

We are reviewing, on an expedited basis, a backlog of about 400 million pages of records that have been classified for years.  We work with the agencies that created the records as well as those other agencies whose classified information is included in them. The goal is to declassify as many of them as possible.

Records with high public interest and those with a high likelihood of being declassified are getting priority. These records include some pertaining to military operations and World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War—all of which are of great interest to historians. The deadline to finish these reviews is December 31, 2013.  And I am happy to report that we have passed the 800,000 page mark already.

We accession 15 million additional pages of classified information each year, creating the potential of a future backlog. That’s why it’s important for us to eliminate the current backlog and find a way to avoid future backlogs.

The Center oversees all this work with the motto: “releasing all we can, protecting what we must.”

One of the things that has made records processing more difficult and time consuming is the fact that more than 2,000 different declassification guidelines exist throughout the Government. The Center is overseeing the development of common guidelines for all departments and agencies.

A year ago we established the Office of Government Information Services, which monitors activity government-wide under the Freedom of Information Act.  Its mission:  improving the FOIA process and resolving disputes between Federal agencies and FOIA requesters.

The FOIA act grants the legal right for any person to obtain access to information in the departments and agencies of the executive branch of government. The only limitations are the nine categories that the law exempts, such as classified records pertaining to national security.

Described by Congress as the FOIA Ombudsman, this office is specifically charged with reviewing policies, procedures, and compliance of administrative agencies, and recommending to Congress and the President any changes needed to improve the administration of the Freedom of Information Act.

Although very few denials of records under this act are appealed, such actions involve significant administrative and legal costs. We work with the Department of Justice—as well as with other agencies, requesters, and freedom-of-information advocates—to find ways to make the act work more effectively and efficiently.

In the last year, FOIA shined a light on oil drilling, falsified military valor claims, and Government credit card misuses, among many other examples. 

Deepwater Horizon is a good example of the power of FOIA:  After the April 2010 BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity analyzed data obtained under FOIA and reported in May that 97 percent of all “egregiouis willful” violations cited by Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors in the previous three years were found at two BP-owned refineries. 

The Associated Press relied on FOIA to report in May that the Minerals Management Service (recently renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement) violated its own policy by not conducting monthly inspections on BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig.  Two weeks later, The New York Times reported that Federal drilling records and well reports obtained from the bureau under FOIA helped reveal a history of problems with a blowout preventer and casing long before the Deepwater Horizon explosion.  

Our Information Security Oversight Office oversees the classification programs of government and industry—ensuring public access where appropriate, but safeguarding national security information. This office also reviews requests for original classification authority from agencies and does on-site inspections to monitor compliance with security requirements.

Not all sensitive information is classified, however, and this office is leading the effort to reform the system for managing “sensitive but unclassified” or “controlled unclassified information.”

* * *

The backbone of Open Government is good records management. Without it, it is impossible for the public to understand their rights and the actions of their Government.  Without good records management, it is impossible for us to learn from the past and plan for the future. 

However, across government today, there is cause for concern.

The results of self-assessment data this year from Federal agencies suggests that four out of five reporting agencies have moderate to high levels of risk associated with their records management programs. And this is particularly the case with electronic records.

Electronic records create new problems and challenges.  And NARA is working to strengthen its leadership role in this area by finding and developing cost-effective IT solutions for today and the future.

Although there is no magic answer to the challenge of preserving electronic records, we are working this issue in a variety of ways.

We are building the Electronic Records Archives, or ERA, to hold the Federal Government’s electronic records.

Eventually, ERA will hold all the most important records. This includes both those that are born-digital or traditional records that have been digitized.

The idea is to make these records accessible far into the future—free from dependence on any specific hardware or software used to create them.

These records then will be accessible to anyone at anytime from anywhere in the world.

When ERA is fully operational in 2012, it will be mandatory for all federal agencies to move their permanent records to the ERA.

At the same time, we’re embracing our role in electronic records, we’ll be using 21st century means to reach more customers—social media.

Let me make one thing clear. The National Archives plans to be a leader in government in the use of social media, and we have embarked on it in a big way. 

Web 2.0 is altering how people interact with the National Archives. Last year, we launched our YouTube page and made our first Tweet. Within a month, one of our videos had gone viral and received more than 15,000 views in a single day. Within the nine months, our films were viewed more than 100,000 times. Less than four months later that number doubled.

Our YouTube channel is part of a suite of social media projects launched at the National Archives spanning the blogosphere, wikis, Twitter, Flickr and Facebook. We maintain seven blogs to inform customers, whether it’s the latest developments in genealogical research, historical anecdotes, information from the regional archives, or the latest from the Archivist himself.

A year ago we had two Facebook pages. Now we have more than 20. Our primary Facebook page has more than 8,000 fans from 17 countries, and adds almost a hundred fans a week. Since 2009 when we sent our first tweet, we’re now heavily involved in the Twittersphere with more than 10,000 followers across seven Twitter feeds.

These projects are only the beginning, however, especially as we focus on mobile technologies. Our flagship publication, Prologue magazine, now has a growing number of subscribers on the iPad, iPhone, and Droid. We are overhauling our website to be mobile-friendly, and we are geo-tagging our photos when possible.

Generation Y—who just this year blew past the Baby Boomers in terms of overall population share—uses this stuff the way our generation relied on the daily mail and the newspaper.  The whole commerce of information has changed permanently. 

And speaking of Facebook, a new movie, “The Social Network,” provides a good look at how quickly Facebook was developed and grown and how quickly the social media landscape can change.

Every day, the National Archives is more wired for a wireless world.

Our buildings in both College Park and downtown Washington are being wired for Wi-Fi this fall.

And just one more Web 2.0 application to brag about:  Federal Register 2.0.  In late July, on the 75th birthday of the Federal Register, we launched a Web 2.0 version. 

The Federal Register is often called the Government’s daily newspaper since it provides a public record of actions and proposed actions of all the departments and agencies in the Executive Branch. 

The new, user-friendly version of the print edition functions much like a newspaper web page.  It makes it easier for all of our citizens to find what they need, comment on proposed rules, and share materials relevant to their interests.  Like a newspaper it has individual sections for Money, Environment, World, Science and Technology, Business and Industry, and Health and Public Welfare. 

It also has a constantly updated Calendar of Events that lists public meetings about proposed government actions.  And it tracks the openings and closing of comment periods on proposed rules and regulations and the effective dates of new rules.  Each document that asks for public comments features a highly visible button for the public to do so.  And it is all written in language which can be understood by the general public!   

* * *

Even with all these changes, we needed to make some structural changes to the agency I found when I took office 355 days ago—structural changes that would make a culture change easier.

As a result, we are embarking on a plan to transform ourselves into an agency focused on the new and ever-growing needs of both our customers and our staff in a quickly-changing digital era.

Last summer, I appointed a small task force to come up with a plan to transform the agency. The draft was shared with the staff, and hundreds of comments were received. Last week, I approved the final plan.

The plan outlines a major reorganization of NARA—one that reduces redundancies, streamlines decision-making, and lays the foundation for a very different way of doing business.  It will make it easier for our staff to provide better services to our customers.

The plan reflected what I felt was a need to make sure our organizational structure reflected our goal of making six key transformations over the next five years.

Those transformations involve:

  • Working as one NARA, not just as component parts.
  • Embracing the primacy of electronic information in all facets of our work and position NARA to lead accordingly.
  • Fostering a culture of leadership, not just as a position but as the way we all conduct our work.
  • Transforming NARA into a great place to work through trust and empowerment of all of our people, the agency’s most vital resource.
  • Creating structures and processes to allow our staff to more effectively meet the needs of our customers.
  • Opening our organizational boundaries to learn from others.

We now have a Transformation Launch Team at work preparing an implementation plan for the reorganization. But a reorganized agency will not in itself bring about change.

That change will come from our staff—the best and the brightest there are, equipped with the proper tools for success in an environment where success is possible.

Thank you.