About the National Archives

Prepared Remarks of Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero at the Smithsonian Institution’ s Archives/Libraries Program in Washington, DC

May 26, 2010

The Archivist was introduced by Anne VanCamp, Head of Smithsonian Institution Archives.

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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Thank you, Anne, for that kind introduction and for inviting me to the Smithsonian.

I’m happy to be here to talk to you because our two institutions play complementary roles in our democracy. Together, we preserve the records and artifacts that chronicle and illustrate the nation’s history—not only for the generations to come but for the current generations.

Every year, millions of Americans make a pilgrimage to Washington—some of them for the first and only time in their lives—to see some of these records and artifacts: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, as well as the original Star Spangled Banner, the Spirit of St. Louis, and the Greensboro lunch counter.

In all these cases— and millions more—we have preserved pieces of history for our fellow citizens to see for themselves.

They can imagine themselves in a time and place where, for example, Thomas Jefferson was drafting the Declaration of Independence or Charles Lindbergh was preparing for his solo flight across the Atlantic.

Then, they can take home their first-hand impressions of what they’ve seen back to their friends and neighbors all across America. They can share the story of our democracy they found here along the Mall.

Our democracy was born in revolution, tested in a great Civil War and blossomed in the 20th Century when the basic rights of freedom and liberty were extended to so many more Americans. But it was not always as open and participatory as we would like to think.

When our Founding Fathers gathered in the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia in 1787, the sessions were held in the same building where, 11 years earlier, they had declared independence.

But it was far from "open government." The State House doors were closed. Guards kept the inquisitive public away from the building. No visitors or reporters were allowed inside. And delegates maintained their rule of secrecy even when prodded and questioned as they went about the city during their off-hours.

The detailed notes taken by James Madison, considered the Father of the Constitution, were not made public until decades later.

Now, however, we have entered a new dimension. And it’s where those who make decisions on our behalf no longer are insulated from the citizenry. Citizens no longer have to write letters or make phone calls to the Federal bureaucracy to have their voices heard. Their voices can be heard—right now, right away.

I like to call it Democracy 2.0.

At the National Archives, it’s our response to President Obama’s Open Government Initiative, which he set in motion on his first full day in office and which he detailed in his Open Government Directive in December.

Our Open Government Plan complies with the President’s desire to bring more transparency, participation, and collaboration to government. But it also seeks to engage Americans, inform them and educate them—and in the process might even entertain them as well.

* * *

I want to tell you about our Open Government plan, but first I need to talk a bit about what must be the backbone of any good Open Government plan. And that is effective and efficient recordkeeping.

As the nation’s record keeper, we preserve—and make accessible to the public—vast volumes of records dating back to the beginnings of our nation.

They document the individual rights and entitlements of our citizens. They record the actions of our government and the individuals responsible for those actions. And they hold the history of the national experience, the triumphs as well as the darker chapters.

The records we preserve are those with permanent value; that’s about 2 to 3 percent of all the records created in conducting the public’s business.

In 17 states and here in the District, we have accumulated as permanent records more than 10 billion pages of textual documents; 7.2 million maps, charts, and architectural drawings; more than 20 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 more than 96 terabytes of electronic records; 77 terabytes are from the George W. Bush White House alone, so you can see the trend-line here.

In addition, our Federal Records Centers are custodians for 63 billion pages of records that the agencies and departments still use and draw from on a regular basis.

* * *

At the same time, we help agencies manage their records to meet their business needs and to ensure that the records of historical value are in good order when they are transferred to us.

We believe it’s important for Federal agencies themselves to preserve their records economically and effectively long enough, and in a usable format, to meet various business needs. And the agencies, along with the Archives, must ensure that records of archival value are preserved and made available for future generations.

However, across government today, there is some cause for concern, for too many records are at risk—of damage or loss.

Last summer, we required all Federal agencies to perform a self-assessment of their records management programs. The goal was to gather data to determine how effective Federal agencies are in meeting the statutory and regulatory requirements for records management.

Nearly 90 percent of all 245 cabinet-level agencies and their components, as well as independent agencies, responded.

The results were not encouraging.

We found that four out of five agencies are at either a high (36 percent) or moderate (43 percent) risk of improper destruction of records.

Simply put, the Federal Government is not doing a good job of managing its records and information—particularly its electronic records. They need to be better managed to meet business needs, to protect rights or assure accountability, and to ensure the continued preservation and access of permanently valuable records.

* * *

Electronic records pose different problems and challenges than traditional records.

The Federal Government spends more than $80 billion annually on information technology. Most —if not all—of the IT systems create or receive Federal records in some form.

We at NARA will focus on reclaiming our records management leadership role by finding and developing these cost-effective IT solutions needed to meet the electronic records management challenges of today and the future.

* * *

One important way we’re doing that is with the Electronic Records Archives, or ERA, which we are building in partnership with the private sector, to hold all the Federal Government’s electronic records for use by generations to come.

Making ERA fully operational is at the top of my list of things to accomplish, and I consider it the most important challenge the National Archives now faces.

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

Today, electronic records are coming to us not only in the form of Word documents, but spread sheets and power point presentations, images, e-mails and constantly-changing web pages.

And now, we will have the additional challenge of new kinds of records that will be created by the social-media activities of federal departments and agencies as well as records created on personal devices such as Blackberries. These activities are growing at a very rapid rate, as I’m sure you all know.

The idea is to put these records in a form so they can outlive the software and hardware used to create them and be accessible by anyone, at anytime, from anywhere in the world, far into the future.

As is always the case when you’re creating something new and innovative, there have been challenges, and ERA was no exception. But we’ve met those challenges and expect productive years ahead. Progress has been slow—but steady.

The first phase of ERA ran from 2005 to 2008 and involved electronic records from four federal agencies. Later this year, the number of agencies that use the ERA will be expanded from these four to about 30.

The 77 terabytes of electronic records from the George W. Bush Administration that ERA took in will be available in accordance with the laws governing presidential records.

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

* * *

All of this now brings us to the National Archives’ Open Government Plan.

Long before President Obama issued his directive on Open Government, the Archives had its principles embedded in the mission statement and strategic goals of our agency. It reads:

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. We support democracy, promote civic education, and facilitate historical understanding of our national experience.

That’s 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
  • Develop web and data services to meet our 21st Century needs.
  • Strengthen transparency at the National Archives.
  • Provide leadership and services to enable the Federal Government to meet 21st Century challenges.

Record keeping has become much more complex today, but we also owe it to future generations to find technological solutions to preserve the records of today’s government. And we must be prepared for the new ways in which government and citizens interact and the new kinds of records created through social media.

All of this will involve a real change for our agency—not only in our processes, but also in the culture of the agency. We have the opportunity to work and communicate more efficiently and more effectively—and in completely new ways.

More than one and a half million pieces of information are shared on Facebook each day. Generation Y—who just this year surpassed the Baby Boomers in 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. Transactions between organizations—including the federal government—and users will continue to spread and grow. We want to develop the right framework for preserving the most basic records for the short term, and we need to be good stewards of this new dynamic.

* * *

Our flagship initiative is to develop online services to meet our 21st Century needs.

At NARA, we plan to leverage the power of the Internet to make our records more easily accessible, as well as improve our engagement with employees and the public. We want to make it so they can better take advantage of the resources we have to make use of those records.

That brings us, first, to our public web site, www.archives.gov.

We are redesigning the web site to maximize public participation as well as develop streamlined search capabilities. The result will be a vast improvement of our online capabilities in order to foster the public’s use of our records.

The intent is 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.

Next, we are seeking employee engagement through blogs, webinars and other social media tools on our internal web site to allow greater communication among our staff and management located around the country.

Third, we’re not waiting for the public to come to our buildings or our web site.

We’re going beyond www.archives.gov to reach users where they are. We are doing that by seeking online public engagement through social media tools like Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, Twitter, and blogs.

In the next year, I want our agency to become a leader and innovator in all aspects of social media.

In the past year, we developed a number of successful social media projects. Now, we intend to develop a comprehensive social media strategy for the agency, which will include internal as well as external communications efforts using new media tools.

I have even launched my own blog: "AOTUS: Collector in Chief" available at blogs.archives.gov/aotus. Please join me there sometime in discussing crucial challenges we face and the future of the National Archives.

* * *

Fourth, we are putting more and more information out on the Internet that people need and can use.

We are publishing high value datasets on Data.gov. These raw data sets allow the public to take government information and create new interfaces or online experiences. We are eager to see what will be produced by unleashing public innovation on these datasets.

So far, we have posted on Data.gov 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.

Fifth, we created an "Open Government" web page, www.archives.gov/open, which serves as the portal for Open Government activities at the National Archives. Our Open Government Plan is there, and your comments are always welcome.

Also, we are taking a strategic approach to digitization. We are searching for ways to step up our efforts in this massive undertaking by determining which traditional records should get priority in digitization and how to accomplish as much digitization as possible at the least cost in the least amount of time.

Next, we are providing Open Government leadership to other Federal agencies.

Our new Office of Government Information Services provides services to mediate disputes between Freedom of Information Act requestors and Federal Agencies, as well as guidance for agencies in dealing with FOIA aspects of the Open Government Directive.

* * *

Our new National Declassification Center has taken the leadership role in streamlining the declassification process throughout the federal government.

To give you a sense of the challenge the Center faces, there are now some 2,000 different security classification guides at work in the government. And we have a backlog of about 400 million pages of classified records waiting to be declassified and made public by the end of 2013. Some of these records pertain to military operations in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War—all of which are of great interest to historians.

Next, the Office of the Federal Register, located within NARA, will be playing a major role.

This office tends to the details of democracy. Every day, the Federal Register publishes the new laws, regulations, executive orders, directives, proclamations and other information about the government and ensures that they are available and archived for the public.

It’s the government’s daily newspaper, but like all newspapers, it’s time for a change.

This summer, we’re going to re-launch this daily Federal Register as a daily web newspaper for the 21st Century that will guide readers to articles and topics that are most popular and relevant to their lives.

This new web newspaper will also highlight proposed and final rules that have significant impacts on our economy or raise important regulatory policy issues. And it will 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.

A Regulatory Timeline will pinpoint where a regulatory action stands in the official process and links to previous proposed rules and related notices.

And to further encourage citizen participation in government, 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.

* * *

As I mentioned before, the success of the President’s Open Government Initiative depends in large part on improving records management throughout the government. That way, they are accessible for the public to examine them, use them and learn from them—so the past can inform the future.

A bipartisan, federal committee once looked at the state of government record-keeping at all levels of government and concluded, "The United States is in danger of losing its memory." That was in 1985, a generation ago.

And that was before even the simplest web sites, before Facebook and YouTube, before blackberries and iPads, before blogs and tweets. Now, a new record is created every time someone strikes Control-S on a Federal keyboard. The volume of records being created daily is staggering.

There are huge risks and challenges associated with what archives are doing. Particularly in the digital environment, where everything is saved yet little is preserved. Clearly, we need to save better and preserve more—and not the other way around.

The National Archives can play an important role in the evolution of the digital archives environment. We will continue to build our ERA, which can serve as a cog around which much additional R&D from the private and academic sectors can occur.

Together, we can find ways to preserve what’s important and what will enhance and nurture Open Government.

It can be done. And it will change the way we do things . . . the way we think about what we do. . . and the way we deliver our services to the public.

Thank you for inviting me here today.