About the National Archives

Prepared remarks of Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero at the "Conference for Parliamentarians-Balancing Openness and the Public Interest in Protecting Information" as part of Canadian Right-to-Know Week. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

September 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?

It is a pleasure to be here to talk to you today about not only the role of the National Archives and Records Administration of the United States, but also the impact of the Open Government Directive on our work.

My agency’s role in our democracy is clear and simple: We are the nation’s record keeper. We safeguard and preserve the records of our national government so our citizens can use them and learn from them many years from now.

These records range from our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution to military personnel files and routine agency memos to today’s e-mails and digital images.  

And we provide access to these records—ready, easy access to all who come to us.

The records that end up in our permanent holdings represent only 2 to 3 percent of all those created by Federal departments and agencies. But they are the most important ones. Over the years, millions of people have come to our facilities around the country to work with these records.
They seek genealogy information in the form of ships’ records, immigration lists, or Civil War pension files.

Millions more contact us for their military records to qualify for government benefits.

Lawyers use our records to prepare court cases or research past cases.

Students and scholars examine documents for term papers and dissertations.

Historians and journalists mine the records for details for books and articles.

Others consult the records of our Congress to enrich their understanding of representative government, and still others visit our Presidential libraries around the country to do research on one of the 13 most recent Presidential administrations.

And Congress uses the records in many ways.  Most recently we delivered 170,000 pages of records, including some 65,000 e-mail messages from the Clinton Presidential Library, for the Senate Judiciary Committee’s confirmation hearing for our latest Supreme Court Justice, Elena Kagan. 

All told, we have about 10 billion pages of paper documents, more than 40 million still photographs, miles and miles of video and audio tape and film, and thousands of artifacts, maps and charts.

Now, records are coming to us from other federal agencies and departments and the White House not on paper, but in electronic form—records that were born digital. They come to us in the form of text documents, e-mails, digital images, web pages, spread sheets, satellite imagery, and eventually blogs, tweets, and all the other kinds of “records” that we are creating in this digital age.

They are headed for our Electronic Records Archives, or ERA, which will eventually hold all the important records of our government.

As we move into the digital age, we don’t want to leave our past behind. So in addition to these born-digital electronic records, our ERA will hold traditional paper records that have been digitized.
Of course, we have our own digitization programs. But digitizing is expensive and time-consuming work. So we also have active partnerships with private sector entities, as you do here in Canada, to digitize some of the most-requested traditional records to post online as soon as possible.

The aim of ERA 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 can be used by anyone, 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. This year, the number of federal agencies that use the ERA is being expanded from these four to about 30. The records of President George W. Bush’s administration are also now in the ERA.

Eventually, it will be mandatory for all federal departments and agencies to move their permanent records to ERA, which is on schedule to be fully operational in 2011.

Preserving and making available the records of our government is our main mission, but our responsibilities are much broader. 

In addition to the 13 Presidential libraries and our four locations in the Washington area, we have 14 regional archives, 17 federal records centers, and a big personnel records center in St. Louis that preserves all the records of American soldiers, sailors, and airmen from the early 20th century.  Here we have the military records of Douglas MacArthur, Colin Powell, and Elvis Presley.  Not long ago I saw Clark Gable’s World War II discharge papers signed by his personnel officer, Captain Ronald Reagan.

We also publish the Federal Register, which comes out every federal workday and includes all Presidential proclamations and executive orders, rules and regulations from federal agencies and departments, and documents required by law to be published.

We annually provide $10 million in grants to preserve and make accessible non-federal records. And, every four years, we oversee the operation of the Electoral College, which elects our nation’s President and Vice President.

* * *

As I noted before, the National Archives is in the access business, which has made us a pretty open agency.

President Barack Obama provided a vision for Open Government during his Inaugural Address when he said:  “The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors or failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears.”

In his Open Government Directive, issued just a year ago, the President called for the creation of a culture of transparency, participation, and collaboration in and among Federal agencies.

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 citizens interact with the government.

Every agency was charged to develop an Open Government Plan. Complying with this directive required no change in the mission of the Archives.

The thinking behind his 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.

In his Open Government Initiative, the President directed all agencies to develop their own open government plan. We have done so. Our plan:

  • Strengthens the culture of open government at the National Archives
  • Strengthens transparency at the National Archives.
  • Provides leadership and services to enable the Federal Government to meet 21st Century challenges.
  • Develops web and data services to meet our 21st Century needs.

* * *

Let me tell you of some of the things we’re doing to bring about a culture of “open government” at the National Archives.

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.

We accession 15 million more 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 develop a work process to avoid future backlogs.

To oversee this work we established the National Declassification Center (NDC) within NARA with the motto:  “releasing all we can, protecting what we must.” It is overseeing the development of common declassification processes among all departments and agencies. More than 2,000 different declassification guidelines exist throughout the Government, which has made the records processing more difficult.

A year ago we established is the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), 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. 
Our 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. This right is limited when the information falls under one of the act’s nine statutory exemptions, such as classified records pertaining to national security.

Described by Congress as the FOIA Ombudsman, OGIS is specifically charged with reviewing policies and procedures of administrative agencies, reviewing compliance by these agencies, and recommending policy changes to Congress and the President 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.

Our Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) 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 agency also serves as the final word on exemptions from automatic declassification after 25 years.  ISOO recently declassified a British-American agreement on sharing code-breaking techniques. Its existence was not even acknowledged until 2005, and now it will fill in significant gaps in the history of the Cold War.

* * *

Our most visible activities in open government have been with social media, and we are using these new media tools to improve internal as well as external communication.

My intent is to make the National Archives the leader in government in the use of social media. As the agency responsible for providing guidance to the rest of Government about the records implications of all technology applications, it is important that the National Archives be a leader, not a follower, in the use of new and emerging technologies.  We have, for instance, recently released guidance on Web 2.0 technology and records implications and guidance on cloud computing.
In the spirit of Open Government, we are creating new opportunities to engage our user community.

My experience in libraries over the years convinces me that we learn so much more about our holdings when someone who makes use of the materials helps 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, deeply immersed in their subjects, and passionate about the records pertaining to their area of interest.

They become more familiar with a particular set of records than our own archivists, each of whom has responsibility for thousands of records.  Understand, please, that professional archivists cannot do everything and know everything.

These researchers—these ordinary citizens—can be of great help in writing descriptions of these records in partnership with our professional archivists.  They can make major contributions in describing and understanding the records in our holdings.

We are calling them “Citizen Archivists.”

Not long ago, I met Jonathan Webb Deiss, a researcher at the Archives. His knowledge and enthusiasm for discovering treasures makes him a model Citizen Archivist.

Jonathan told me how he found a previously unpublicized Revolutionary War diary in the records of the United States Senate.

As a knowledgeable and skilled researcher, Jonathan knew that Samuel Leavitt’s diary of his journey to West Point was important. Leavitt was a soldier from Stratham, New Hampshire. He enlisted in early July 1780 to serve a three-month tour. The journal starts on July 5, 1780, and covers his march to West Point, his tour of duty, and his march back to New Hampshire in October 1780.

On page 17 of the diary, Leavitt describes General George Washington at West Point and hearing the “news of Gen’l Arnold the commander of the Garrison deserting to the Enemy.” Today, in our American culture, the name of Benedict Arnold is synonymous with that of a traitor.

Jonathan’s discovery wasn’t the first surprise lurking in the stacks. Another example:

In 1996, a private researcher at the Archives discovered in declassified U.S. Army records from World War II a list of primarily Jewish unclaimed accounts in a Swiss bank totaling more than $20 million.  This list provided proof that information about wartime assets in the highly secretive Swiss Banks could be found in records in the National Archives. 

This discovery led to lawsuits and congressional hearings to force Swiss banks to disclose the assets they received—and to a re-evaluation of Switzerland's neutrality in the War. It also set off a very big wave of archival research.  That researcher has been a member of our staff now for nearly 10 years.
These are just two examples of researchers contributing in very interesting ways. And they prove that there are still treasures to find within our records.

I should note here that despite what you saw in the movie National Treasure several years ago, there is NO treasure map on the back of our Declaration of Independence.

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. 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 that they can benefit from work that we do now.

* * *

We have also moved on another front to strengthen the connection between our citizens and the daily workings of their national government.

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.  
Now, we have re-launched it as a daily online newspaper for the 21st Century. We call it Federal Register 2.0.

It’s a new, user-friendly version of the print edition and functions much like a newspaper web page.

It makes it easier for all 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 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.