About the National Archives

Prepared Remarks of Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero as part of Duke University School of Law panel discussing "The Law is ‘America’s Operating System:’ Should it be open source?"

April 28, 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.

The AOTUS Blog
What's an Archivist?

The Archivist is introduced by Jennifer Jenkins, Director, Center for the Study of the Public Domain, Duke University School of Law.

Thank you for inviting me here today to give you the view from the National Archives and Records Administration.

NARA’s role 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 to our citizens so they can use them and learn from them.

The records that come to us for accession into 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.

vOnce 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.

Over the years, many thousands—millions—of people have come to these locations for genealogy information in the form of ship’s records, immigration rolls, or Civil War pension files.

Millions more contact our St. Louis facility for their military records to qualify for government benefits.

Others consult the records of Congress we hold in Washington to enrich our understanding of representative government, and still others visit our Presidential libraries to do research about one of the 13 Presidential Administrations for which we hold records.

* * *

The National Archives has been and continues to be a leader in the on-line movement for greater access to primary legal materials. Already, we provide a large amount of these documents to our customers on the World Wide Web.

Since 1994, NARA’s Office of the Federal Register and the Government Printing Office have provided the following primary legal materials to the public online: the Public and Private Laws of the United States, the United States Statutes at Large, the daily Federal Register, and the Code of Federal Regulations.

In 2008, the Federal Register began placing documents appearing on public inspection online, thereby providing the general public greater access to the documents that impact their daily lives.

The Federal Register and GPO partnership now offers bulk data downloads of Federal Register and Code of Federal Regulations XML files to the general public via Data.gov and FDsys online.

Bulk downloads of this information are being used by the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University and the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University in new and innovative ways to help citizens play a greater role in the rulemaking process.

FedThread.org has been experimenting with user annotation in terms of making comments directly beside the text of Federal Register documents, which could then be submitted as comments to the official site.

The website http://govpulse.us is also on the forefront of the transparency movement by making the Federal Register searchable, more accessible and easier for the general public to participate in government.

It’s not only the private sector that benefits from bulk downloads. Providing this important legal information in bulk downloads has created new opportunities for government, allowing us to develop new ways to display this information online.

Executive branch agencies and departments send their important records to the Archives according to records schedules. They are then available unless they fall under exemptions or exclusions of the Freedom of Information Act.

But many executive branch agencies put policies, rulings, and opinions immediately on their web sites, long before such records are scheduled to come to NARA. It all forms a significant part of administrative law.

Eventually the most important of these documents will go into the Electronic Records Archives, or ERA, that we are building to hold all of the federal government’s electronic records. This includes both those that are born-digital or traditional records that are digitized.

The idea is to make these records accessible far into the future—free from dependence on any specific hardware or software. These records then will be accessible to the public at any time from anywhere in the world.

The first phase of ERA ran from 2005 to 2008 and involved electronic records from four federal agencies: the Patent and Trademark Office, the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the Naval Oceanographic Office. These agencies now use the ERA. Later this year, the number of federal agencies that use the ERA will be expanded from these four to about 30.

At the end of the George W. Bush Administration, in January 2009, ERA took in 77 terabytes of data from the Executive Office of the President. That’s about 320 million searchable objects. These records from the Bush Administration will be available in accordance with the laws governing presidential records.

Eventually, it will be mandatory for all federal agencies to move their permanent records to the ERA, which is on schedule to be fully operational in 2012. The prime contractor is Lockheed Martin.


Everything I’ve mentioned so far fits in well with our "Open Government" plan, which was created to comply with President Barack Obama’s Open Government Directive issued in December.

The President’s Open Government Directive calls for the creation of a culture of transparency, participation, and collaboration in and among Federal agencies. The goal: Transform the way the government does business and the way people interact with the government.

The thinking behind the Open Government Directive is the essence of the work we do every day—rooted in the belief that citizens have the right to see, examine, and learn from the records of their government.

Our Open Government plan goes further. It will:

  • Strengthen the culture of open government at the National Archives
  • Strengthen transparency at the National Archives.
  • Provide leadership and services to enable the Federal Government to meet 21st Century challenges.
And—important to our discussion today:
  • Develop web and data services to meet our 21st Century needs.

We will continue to contribute data to Data.gov. So far, we have posted the Federal Register from 2000 forward, the Code of Federal Regulations from 2007 through 2009, and descriptions from our Archival Research Catalog from 2002 forward. These ARC descriptions now cover about 65 percent of our holdings.

We plan to leverage the power of the Internet to make our records more easily available. Our web site, search capabilities, digitization strategies, and our use of social media to engage the public must be able to meet these needs.

One of the things that will be different will be the Federal Register. We’re going to re-launch it as a daily web newspaper for the 21st Century.

The new Federal Register will guide its readers to the articles and topics that are most popular and relevant to their lives. It will have individual sections for Money, Environment, World, Science and Technology, Business and Industry, and Health and Public Welfare.

This new approach will also highlight proposed and final rules that have significant impact on the U.S. economy or raise important regulatory policy issues.

Also, the new Federal Register will post a Calendar of Events, constantly updated to list public meetings all over the country, including those that offer webcasts and remote call-in options. The Calendar will also track the opening and closing of comment periods and the dates of rules going into effect.

Users with an interest in a particular agency can easily follow each day’s documents, as well as the most popular documents issued in the past. Statistics and visualizations will track agency activity over time.

Other innovative tools will appear in the new Federal Register. One of them will be a Regulatory Timeline that pinpoints where a regulatory action stands in the official process and links to previous proposed rules and related notices. For those new to rulemaking, the site will also offer tutorials, articles from academic contributors, and access to government document librarians.

The new Federal Register will go beyond just reading about government rules. It will help people participate in government, one of the major goals of the Open Government Initiative.

Each document that asks for public comments will feature a highly visible button for submitting comments directly to the official agency site. If a reader wants to share news and comment opportunities with friends or interest groups, the document will include a feature for sending e-mail and posting to social networking sites.

vAt the same time, we will be redesigning our public web site, www.Archives.gov, to maximize public participation as well as to develop streamlined search capabilities.

We intend for our entire website, as well as access to our holdings online, to be a user-focused community experience. Further, 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.

Our "Open Government" plan is posted on our web site at www.archives.gov/open. Your comments and suggestions are welcome anytime. There’s no deadline.

And if you have a comment for me, you’ll find me at my own blog at blogs.archives.gov/aotus. I’d be happy to hear from you about the Law.gov project or any Archives issue.

The National Archives is poised to open up government more for its citizens and that, of course, means having a dialog with those citizens. So let’s talk—about National Archives issues and your concerns.

Thank you.