About the National Archives

Prepared remarks of Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero at the Educause Center for Applied Research symposium, Carlsbad, California.

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.

The AOTUS Blog
What's an Archivist?

December 8, 2010

Last December, the President issued his Open Government Directive to strengthen the relationship between the Federal Government and the American people. 

In his words:  “My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government.  We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration.  Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”

In the language of the Directive’s Memorandum: 

Transparency promotes accountability by providing the public with information about what the government is doing. Participation allows members of the public to contribute ideas and expertise so that our government can make policies with the benefit of information that is widely dispersed in society. Collaboration improves the effectiveness of Government by encouraging partnerships and cooperation within the Federal Government, across levels of Government, and between Government and private institutions.

The goal: Transform the way the government does business and the way people interact with the government.

Each agency was charged to develop its own Open Government Plan. The thinking behind the administration’s Open Government Directive is the essence of the work we do every day. It’s rooted in the belief that citizens have the right to see, examine, and learn from the records of their government.

This principle is already embedded in the mission statement of our agency. So when we began developing our Open Government plan for the Archives, we thought it might be simply an explanation of what we already do.

However, in discussing and working through the plan, staff from across the agency began to discover new possibilities for making changes to what we do. Transparency, participation and collaboration are being taken to levels never considered before.

Our Open Government plan describes how we plan to enhance and strengthen our efforts towards the goals laid out in the President’s directive.

Our Plan is to:

  • Strengthen the culture of open government at the National Archives
  • Strengthen transparency at the National Archives.
  • Provide leadership and services to enable all federal departments and agencies to meet 21st Century record-keeping challenges, and
  • Develop web and data services to meet our 21st Century needs.

As we always have at the Archives, we try to make as much of our holdings as open to the public as possible. To do so, we are leveraging the power of the Internet.

We are constantly improving our web site, our search capabilities, and our digitization strategies——and increasing our use of social media to engage the public.
We have moved quickly and decisively on these issues this past year.

We are unveiling a new version of our web site this month.

You’ll find it less cluttered and easier to navigate. It will maximize public participation as well as offer streamlined search capabilities to allow you to dig deep into our holdings to find what you’re looking for.

We intend for our entire web site, as well as access to our holdings online, to be a user-focused community experience. And we intend to explore ways to develop our current catalog into a social catalog that allows our online users to contribute information to descriptions of our records.
One of the things that is already different is the Federal Register, which is 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.  

This summer, we re-launched it as a daily web newspaper for the 21st Century that guides readers to articles and topics that are most popular and relevant to their lives.

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 closings 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.

For those unfamiliar with how the government formulates and implements new rules and regulations, the site also offers tutorials, articles from academic contributors, and access to government document librarians.

The new Federal Register goes beyond information about government rules. It is an exercise in citizen engagement. It helps people easily participate in government and collaborate with federal officials by offering their views on proposed rules—all in a transparent, open setting so vital to a democracy                                  

This month, we are announcing another important development in support of Open Government. Researchers and visitors have told us that they want us to be able to access more of our holdings online. And they want us to make it easier to find what they want from these online offerings.

One of the major challenges the Archives has been facing is how to preserve and make accessible for future generations the permanently valuable electronic records being created now in the federal government. We’ll need to preserve these records in such a way that they can be accessed years from now by whatever hardware and software is in use then.

Our response to this is the Electronic Records Archives, or ERA, which we have been developing for more than a decade. Already, it has ingested nearly 100 tera-bytes of electronic records, most of them from the recent Bush White House.

Next year, we expect a significant increase in the volume of records in the ERA because of our plan to speed the pace at which federal departments and agencies transfer their permanent electronic records to us.  And our digitizing programs are quickly turning many traditional documents into digitized versions.  ERA is scheduled to be fully operational in 2012.

As we have worked to build ERA, research has been yielding tools that can be used in other aspects of electronic data and records storage.

The National Archives Center for Advanced Systems and Technologies, or N-CAST, is the Archives’ unit charged with staying on – and helping to create -- the cutting edge of research into electronic information and records preservation.  N-CAST’s mission includes adapting research findings into tools that archivists can use.

N-CAST has collaborations and partnerships with a number of academic institutions to conduct research that supports open government.

Just this week, the Archives announced a new and improved version of PRONOM, a web-based registry of more than 750 different digital file formats for use by archivists, records managers, and the public.  It will allow them to ensure long-term preservation by identifying file formats in danger of becoming obsolete.  This is a result of collaboration with the National Archives of the United Kingdom and the Georgia Tech Research Institute.

We also have long partnered with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois. Another collaboration is with the Renaissance Computing Institute, which involves seven universities and institutions in North Carolina – including Duke and UNC at Chapel Hill. This institute is used by hundreds of institutions around the world for open access, sharing, and long-term preservation of digital information.

The Archives is committed to continuing and broadening our partnerships and collaborations with our friends in academia and elsewhere to research emerging technologies for use in meeting the challenges of preserving federal records.

Now, we have a tool for that.

Online Public Access is a significant first step in providing a single search engine for all of our online holdings. It is part of our ongoing commitment to transparency and online access to the nation’s treasured documents.

It will give the public a simpler way to search and view the Government’s permanent records.
Instead of requiring users to go to several places on our web site to look for information, they will be able to type the search term in one box and retrieve images and information from multiple locations—our vast holdings nationwide, our web site, and our social media platforms. 

This tool will integrate searches across several Archives.gov resources and will display the results in a more user-friendly presentation.

We’re excited to offer the public a simpler way to search and view the permanent records of the Federal Government.

As we launch this search prototype, we are asking the public to participate in the process to help shape its development. We want to know how people actually use the portal so we can make further refinements and increase its capability over time.

Public input is critical to the success of our efforts, and I am confident that National Archives users and staff, working together, will help us provide a better experience and easier access to all our users.

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We get public input another way, too.

My experience in libraries over the years has convinced me that we learn so much more about our holdings when those who use them help us better understand and describe what we have.

Often, researchers and authors become quite interested in a particular person, event, or period in American history. They become passionate about the records pertaining to their area of interest. Some become more familiar with a particular set of records than our own archivists, each of whom has responsibility for thousands of records. 

These researchers—these ordinary citizens—can be of great help in writing descriptions of these records in partnership with our professional archivists.  They can do much to increase the understanding of the records in our holdings.

We are calling them “Citizen Archivists.”

We need to do more to leverage the knowledge and expertise of these “Citizen Archivists.”  We want to encourage them to participate more fully and add value to the records by providing historical context and assessing their importance.

Toward this end, we have launched the “Our Archives” wiki, which is a place where staff and researchers can share their ideas about research at the National Archives. This will help us fulfill our mission and enrich the content and value of our records for future generations.

In fact, we’ve had “citizen archivists” pouring over our records for years. With 10 billion pieces of paper, we don’t know what researchers, historians, and Citizen Archivists will find in the future. But I’m sure we’ll all benefit from their discoveries.

                                                * * *

One of the most exciting areas we’re working in now is Web 2.0, and we’ve been quite active in it over the past year. To put it simply: We intend to become a leader and innovator within government in social media.

We’re using Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other means to reach out to new audiences instead of waiting for them to come to us on our web site. A number of units within the Archives have their own Facebook site or blog, as do many of our Presidential libraries and regional archives.

We now have 24 Facebook pages for every niche interest. Some deal with particular record groups and periods in history, some with archival science. There are features about interesting events in history that are documented in our holdings, and there are news and features from the Archives or one of its regional archives or Presidential libraries.

The flagship National Archives Facebook page grows by 30 or more fans a day and now has nearly 10,000 of them.

We have eight blogs, including my own, that draw an audience of 7,000 every week. The blogs deal with such things as new tools for teaching history, records management, and new pieces of history found in the records of the Archives. 

More than 1,200 of our historical videos are available on YouTube––they’ve been viewed more than 300,000 times since the site was launched and we’re now up to 1,500 a day.

And 7,000 of our photos available through Flickr have been viewed nearly two million times. That’s two million more views than we would have gotten if we had just kept the photos on our web site alone. Further, our photo sets are also available in the popular “Indicommons” mobile application, which aggregates photo sets from government and non-profit institutions not only from the United States, but around the world, and provides them in an easy-to-use application for your phone or iPad.

Readers can now see our flagship publication, Prologue Magazine, as well as every one of our blogs, through their mobile phone or iPads. 

Later this month we will be launching our first mobile application, NARA’s “Document of the Day” that will be available for iPhones, iPads, and in the Droid market as well.

The number of our social media visitors increases daily as do our repeat visitors. These social media sites, especially Facebook and YouTube, provide many new portals for users to come to our main web site and become fans, supporters, and, we hope, regular customers and visitors.

And this is just the National Archives––a small government agency. You can imagine what the larger federal departments and agencies are doing in Web 2.0.

A recent GAO report notes that 22 of 24 major federal agencies are actively using social media to provide information to the public. 

We have known for several years that efforts by government to post their data online resonates with citizens. In a recent report, the Pew Research Center reported that 61 percent of all American adults looked for information or completed a transaction on a government website in the last year.

What we are seeing now is that citizen interactions with government are moving beyond the website. Nearly one third of online adults use online platforms such as blogs, social networking sites, email, online video or text messaging to get government information.

Just take a look on Facebook today, and you will find numerous pages sponsored by government agencies, from the EPA, to the U.S. Geological Survey, to the Veterans’ Administration, and many more. All are reaching out to the public where they live online, rather than expecting the public to seek them out. These are all laudable efforts to support the Open Government ideals.

                                                * * *

However, as these agencies and departments reach out to their customers and constituencies on Web 2.0 platform, they also present a records management challenge.

The National Archives is responsible for informing Federal agencies what is required in terms of records management and why it is important. Individual agencies determine how they can best meet the specific requirements. These requirements are the same for paper, electronic, or web 2.0 records.

Over the last several months, the Archives has issued a study on the value of Web 2.0 records and a Bulletin advising Federal agencies how to handle records created using Web 2.0 technologies. We also recognize that Federal agencies are exploring the many opportunities for collaboration and citizen engagement offered by the wide variety of Web 2.0 platforms.

This Bulletin and the Web Study urge agencies to consider their records management requirements at the same time they are developing their presence on these platforms.

Together, these items provide a baseline from which Federal agencies can start to conduct their own analysis to determine the appropriate identification and scheduling of their Federal records.

The principle behind these pieces of guidance is that content on Web 2.0 platforms is likely to be a Federal record and must be managed appropriately.

That does not mean that the content is permanent and worth preserving by the National Archives.
It does mean that we must apply an appropriate disposition based on the agencies’ business needs for the information to protect citizen rights, provide government accountability, or document the national experience.

The study concluded that based upon function and use, records created should continue to be assessed based upon business, evidential, informational, and contextual values.

However, several factors were identified that could affect the value of records in web 2.0. These include:

  • How extensive is the duplication of a particular piece of information, such as a press release on the agency web site also being posted to the agency's blog and Facebook page.
  • How much of the underlying work done in creating the record, such as changes and modifications along the way, will remain.
  • How extensively is agency web content syndicated via RSS, or similar technology, to audiences that do not have to visit the agency web site to get it.
  • How much has been added to posted items by creators of the item or users in the community at large.
  • What’s the public perception of how authoritative the content is and how long it will remain on the Internet?

Our records management team continues to monitor the explosion of Web 2.0 platforms throughout the government as it also advises agencies on the proper management of electronic records.