About the National Archives

Prepared remarks of Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero at the International Conference of the Round Table on Archives in Oslo, Norway.

September 16, 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 participated in a panel titled “The National Archivists’ Reflection Hour: World Power – Digital Powers,” moderated by Ian Wilson, President of the International Council on Archives. National archivists from China, Russia, Japan, Canada, and the United Kingdom also participated.

Just last year, the United States National Archives and Records Administration celebrated its 75th anniversary as a federal agency. The National Archives was created and nurtured even as the nation was experiencing the Great Depression.

Our agency has come a long way since its early days in the 1930s, when records began arriving at the new National Archives Building in downtown Washington, D.C. Many of them were damaged over the years by sunlight, water, mold, and even vermin. The new staff had to devise procedures to preserve and file them so they could be retrieved easily.

That they did.

Since then, the National Archives has received many, many more records --- and in much better condition! In fact, today we have accessioned more than 10 billion pages of records, more than 14 million images, miles and miles of video and audio tape and film and all kinds of other records, such as maps and charts.

Now, we are receiving records from agencies in electronic form, and we are preparing for more of them every year with our Electronic Records Archives, or ERA. The ERA will preserve all of these important records and provide access to them by way of the Internet – at any time, by anyone, from anywhere.

We have also embarked on several digitizing projects so the history that is recorded on paper and parchment is not left behind in the digital age.  Digitizing records, as you know, is an enormous undertaking, and we have partnered with non-government entities to digitize some of our most-requested records.

Our partners digitize groups of records and provide access to them on the websites for a fee for five years. During that time however, the Archives provides access to them—at no cost—at any of our 44 locations around the country. After the five years, we provide free access to them on our website, www.archives.gov.

As the United States’ recordkeeper, we preserve records so citizens can have access to them in the future. That’s important, and we work hard to make it easy for the public to use them.

Every day, hundreds of people come to one of our facilities or get in touch with us by phone or e-mail.

They are looking for help from our genealogy staff to trace their family tree. They need to document their military service to qualify for promised benefits.  Or they’re gathering evidence from federal agency records for legal cases or researching news articles and histories.

In addition, many more come to the Archives via our web site, looking for guidance on obtaining documents involving them or their family, getting started on research in person or online, or viewing historical documents, articles, and exhibits we have posted.

At the U.S. National Archives, our work has always been rooted in the belief that citizens have the right to see, examine, and learn from the records of their national government. 

That was part of the thinking last year when President Obama issued the Open Government Directive to all federal agencies and departments on December 8, 2009. The Directive states that the three principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration form the cornerstone of an open government.

Transparency promotes accountability by providing the public with information regarding what their government is doing.

Participation encourages members of the public to contribute ideas and expertise so that their 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 the Government and private institutions.

The Open Government Directive requires federal agencies and departments to:

* Publish government information online

* Improve the quality of government information

* Create and institutionalize a culture of Open Government within federal agencies, and

* Create an enabling framework for an Open Government.

And it charges the agencies with the task of creating individual Open Government plans.

On President Obama’s first day in office, he said:
“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, participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”

The President’s goal is to transform the way government does business and the way people interact with it.

We have already started on that at the Archives. We are restructuring our own agency to better meet the challenges of the digital age and to do our job more effectively and more efficiently.

And we are taking the goals of transparency, participation, and collaboration seriously. I formed a Transformation Task force that solicited ideas from the staff, issued a draft, then asked for more comment. We expect to begin implementing the final plan soon.
We will restructure our agency to make it easier for transformation to happen --- a cultural change. It will signal priorities, change work processes, and achieve efficiencies --- especially in this time of fiscal restraint.

We plan to be a leader in records management, the preservation of digital records, and the use of social media to allow greater access by the public to the records we hold.

We are also developing web and data services to meet our 21st century needs. We have taken giant steps into the world of social media. We have a number of blogs --- I even have my own --- and we have a presence on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, and other sites on the Internet.  And we are publishing high value datasets online to allow the public to take government information and create new interfaces or online experiences.

And we are promoting the concept of “citizen archivists.” These are people who use the Archives and are often more familiar with--and sometimes even more passionate about – particular sets of records than our own staff, each of whom is responsible for many groups of records.

If you want to know more, you can learn about all of our Open Government efforts at www.archives.gov/open.

We are ready to provide leadership and services to enable the Federal Government to meet 21st century challenges.

And we’ve already begun.

A case in point is our publication, the Federal Register, which tends to the details of our democracy and is often called the government’s daily newspaper.

It publishes every federal work day and contains current Presidential proclamations and executive orders, new rules and regulations from federal agencies and departments, proposed rules and regulations, and documents that are required by statute to be published.

Now, the Federal Register is pushing the frontiers of democracy ever outward.

This summer, we launched what we call Federal Register 2.0 – an important part of our commitment to open government. It’s at www.federalregister.gov.

It’s a new, user-friendly version of the print version of the daily Federal Register and functions much like a newspaper website. It makes it easier for all our citizens to find what they need, comment on proposed rules, and share materials relevant to their interests.

It has individual sections for Money, Environment, World, Science and Technology, Business and Industry, and Health and Public Welfare.

We constantly update a Calendar of Events that lists public meetings about proposed government actions all over the country, including those that offer webcasts and remote call-in options. The Calendar also tracks the openings and closings of comment periods on proposed rules and regulations and the effective dates of new rules.

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 track agency activity over time.

Other innovative tools include a Regulatory Timeline that pinpoints the status of a regulatory action and provides links to previously proposed rules and related notices.
Each document that asks for public comments features a highly visible button for the public to submit comments directly to the official agency site.

If a reader wants to share news and comment opportunities with friends or interest groups, the document includes a feature for sending e-mail and posting to social network sites.

For those unfamiliar with how the federal 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 just reading about government rules. It is an exercise in citizen engagement that 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 American democracy.

In announcing his Open Government Initiative the day after he was inaugurated, President Obama said:  “Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”

At the U. S. National Archives and Records Administration, we take that seriously in carrying out our mission to preserve and provide access to the records that document the rights of our citizens, the actions of our government officials, and our national experience.

Thank you.