About the National Archives

David S. Ferriero at Syracuse University

Prepared Remarks of Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero at Syracuse University.

March 28, 2011

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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"Protecting National Security in an Open Government Environment: the Role of the National Archives."

Good afternoon, and thank you for that kind introduction.

I’m pleased to be able to talk to you today about the challenges we face at the National Archives in providing open access to records while protecting the national interest. 

But I’m even more pleased to be able to tell you about the progress we’ve made in meeting these challenges.

Every day, we offer access to the documentation of our nation’s history that dates back to the Revolutionary War. Taken as a whole, this documentation serves to guarantee our citizens their rights, hold government officials accountable, and tell our nation’s story.

We’re proud and honored to be able to do this, and we invite all Americans to take advantage of our services at any one of our 44 locations around the country.

But the fact of the matter is that we can’t make all these records accessible to the public. Some of them are classified or restricted in some way. If made public, they could compromise our national security by revealing sensitive information, complicating our relations with other nations, and harming or weakening our national defenses.

This is why we have a system of classification and declassification, and why some records, while not classified, are restricted.

So we try to strike a delicate balance between providing as much access as possible to government records while denying or limiting access to sensitive records.

In striking that balance, we try to make our decisions in an open and collaborative way with the users of the records we keep –- the American public. The records, after all, belong to them; we are merely the custodian.


Before I go any further, let me tell you about the National Archives—the best kept secret even in Washington.  And, no, we are not part of the Library of Congress!

The National Archives was created as a Federal agency in 1934 after decades of efforts by the history and archival communities.  Immediately, the new agency began collecting records from all around the government that had been piled in boxes, left on shelves or stuffed in drawers. World War II produced many more records.

The Federal Records Act of 1950 consolidated and expanded the Archives’ authority to manage federal records. The Presidential Libraries Act of 1955 allowed us to accept buildings and land for presidential libraries. And the Presidential Records Act of 1978 designated records of all Presidents serving after January 20, 1981, as property of the federal government.

Taken together, these acts give us broad authority over the records created by Presidents and all federal officials.  We accession into our permanent holdings the most important ones --- about 1 to 3 percent of all those records.

These records are in our facilities around the country:

  • 14 Regional Archives, including one in New York City,
  • 17 Federal Records Centers,
  • 13 Presidential Libraries, including the Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park ,
  • The National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, and
  • Our Facilities in the Washington area.

In all these locations, we preserve – and make accessible -- more than 10 billion pages of textual documents; 7.2 million maps, charts, and architectural drawings; more than 40 million still photographs; billions of machine-readable data sets; and miles of film and videotape.

And, in the fastest growing category, we have, so far, around 100 terabytes of electronic records—81 of these terabytes are from the George W. Bush White House alone.  That translates into more than 240m email messages.

Over the years, millions of people have come to us for information about their family history, their military records, our modern-era Presidents, trials in federal courts, and the nation’s history and how our government works.

Now, more and more people are visiting us on the Internet. Our website provides a wealth of information for researchers and we add more every day.

We are committed to being as open as possible in carrying out our statutory duties. That’s why we were ready when President Obama launched his Open Government Initiative on his first full day in office.   The President called for more participation, collaboration, and transparency in government. He underscored their importance again in his recent State of the Union speech and described the digital world we will be living in ---in the very near future.

I quote the President:

“Within the next five years, we’ll make it possible for businesses to deploy the next generation of high-speed wireless coverage to 98 percent of all Americans.  This isn’t just about faster Internet or fewer dropped calls.  It’s about connecting every part of America to the digital age.  It’s about a rural community in Iowa or Alabama where farmers and small business owners will be able to sell their products all over the world.  It’s about a firefighter who can download the design of a burning building onto a handheld device; a student who can take classes with a digital textbook; or a patient who can have face-to-face video chats with her doctor.” Open government is no problem for the Archives. We have always been about openness and access. It’s a principle embedded in our mission as a non-partisan agency that serves all of government.

Our Open Government plan involves opening as many doors and windows to the Archives as possible. It involves strengthening our engagement with the public and with our three thousand employees.  It involves unlocking more government data for researchers. And it involves online services to meet the needs of the 21st Century the President described.

And we’ve been doing all these things.

We redesigned our web site to make it easier for our customers to navigate and to find what they’re looking for in the 485 gigabytes of information we now have available online so far. And now the web site is mobile-friendly.

But we’re not waiting for people to come to our web site.  We’re reaching out to them with our social media activities. In fact, we plan to be a leader in government in the use of social media.

We have nine blogs, one of which is mine. We have 28 Facebook pages for Presidential libraries and regional archives as well as individual programs and offices within the Archives. We have a YouTube site that draws on our vast collection of film and videotape of events throughout the 20th century.  And you’ll find us on Flickr, where we are geo-tagging our photos when possible, and on Twitter and Foursquare.

These projects are only the beginning, however, especially as we focus on mobile technologies. Our flagship publication, Prologue  magazine, now has a growing number of subscribers on the iPad, iPhone, and Droid, as well as on Scribd and Zinio.

We have put the government’s daily newspaper, The Federal Register, on the Internet as an interactive feature for our citizens who want to follow the government and how laws are made and administered.

And late last year, we launched our Online Public Access system. It provides a public portal for access to our digitized records and information about our records.  And it provides a centralized way of searching multiple National Archives resources at once. You could call it a Google for the Archives.

We’re also transforming ourselves.  We are undergoing a major reorganization, carried out by the staff, which will better reflect what we do today instead of what we did back before the world went digital.  It’s a reorganization that’s designed to make it easier for customers to get what they want from the Archives and easier for us to give it to them.

And we’re practicing the transparency, participation, and collaboration the President talked about.  This is not a top-down reorganization, but one designed by the staff itself, with constant input via our internal web site from staff all around the country.

We’re also using it to engage the public as “citizen archivists” as much as possible. We believe they can add value to our holdings.

We had a case last year that illustrates this.

A knowledgeable and skilled researcher, Jonathan Webb Deiss, came across a previously unpublicized Revolutionary War soldier’s diary in the Records of the U.S. Senate. At one point in the diary, the soldier describes General George Washington at West Point and hearing the "news of Gen’l Arnold the commander of the Garrison deserting to the Enemy."

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

A few years ago, a researcher brought to the attention of one of our archivists a large piece of paper with a lot of writing on it in very organized form but in a foreign language. It turned out to be a copy the overall plan for the invasion of South Korea in June of 1950, written in Russian. It had been largely unnoticed for decades.

Another time, two researchers came across records from a Civil War-era court martial containing the verbatim testimony of Harriett Tubman, the African-American abolitionist and Union spy who ran the Underground Railway. It was significant because Tubman left little in the way of diaries, documents, or other writings.

And on another occasion, staff discovered stock certificates issued by the Government to finance the Louisiana Purchase.  They were found in a box of records from the Bureau of the Public Debt.

Walt Whitman in the Office of the Attorney General.

Our staff archivists don’t have time to go through the files as closely as researchers do, so our citizen archivists’ discoveries will provide new information that will be added to existing descriptions of our records. This type of collaboration between our staff and those who use our records is crucial.  In rethinking our traditional approaches, we will leverage the knowledge and expertise of Citizen Archivists.

Our open government activities are aimed at making more people aware of the National Archives and let them participate with us in discovering and sharing information found in our vast holdings.

But this also presents us with a challenge:  Where to strike the proper balance between providing access to our holdings and protecting information vital to our national security.

We meet these challenges through the work of three important offices within the agency: the Office of Government Information Services, and the National Declassification Center and the Information Security Oversight Office.

Our Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) oversees the enforcement of the Freedom of Information Act, and has earned the nickname, “FOIA Ombudsman.”  We call it O-GIS.

Its job is to improve the FOIA process by offering mediation services to resolve disputes between requesters and agencies under FOIA. But much of its energy is aimed at resolving these disputes informally to avoid going to the level of formal mediation. Sometimes, these “disputes” are merely misunderstandings that can be handled easily by our staff.

In its first full year of operation, OGIS made substantial progress with FOIA requests. OGIS handled 391 cases, most of which did not rise to the level of dispute. Of the 83 cases that did involve disputes between requesters and 24 departments and agencies, OGIS resolved more than four out of five.

But OGIS also acts as an informal information source, communication channel, and complaint handler for federal agencies and requesters.

FOIA is an important tool in our democracy. It is used by journalists, historians, lawyers, and members of Congress—among others.

For example, the Associated Press obtained data under FOIA to report last May that the Mineral Management Service violated its own policy by not conducting monthly inspections on BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

Best-selling author Jon Krakauer used FOIA to obtain documents to write about Pat Tillman’s journey from the National Football League to the U.S. Army in Afghanistan in his book on the late soldier’s journey.

Representative John Dingell of Michigan used FOIA to obtain federal inspection reports that revealed that the bridge connecting Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, suffered corrosion, cracked concrete and rusted railings.

And there are more mundane cases.  An example: OGIS helped resolve the problem when an author writing a book about the CIA believed he was being charged fees incorrectly.


Assisting requesters with their FOIA activities is just one way we’re working to improve access to records.  We’re also at work eliminating the backlog of unprocessed classified records. Last year, we faced a backlog of more than 400 million pages of these records –- accessioned to the Archives but not fully processed for release.

The records deal mainly with intelligence operations and World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War --- all of which are of great interest to historians.

In late 2009, at the direction of the President, I established the National Declassification Center (or the NDC) within the National Archives. Its job: to eliminate that backlog by December 31, 2013, while not creating another backlog.

What makes the job difficult and complex is that a single document can contain classified information drawn from several agencies and each one of these agencies may have its own standards for classifying and declassifying documents.

We have sought to speed up this process by having representatives of all the agencies on location at our facility in College Park, Maryland, so these referrals and decisions can be made quickly.

One of the center’s first jobs was to establish efficient business processes for declassification and tracking of records. We also have to determine how well the originating agency did in indicating what classified information from other agencies they included.

But even after a document has passed through all its classification reviews, it must still be processed archivally.  Documents must be organized and arranged into series, for example by subject and date, and put in order to make them easy for researchers to use. In some cases, NARA archivists will create finding aids for the documents.

So far, the news is good.

Of the more than 400 million pages, 84 million have passed the quality review process, the crucial first stage of the review process. And of the 14.5 million pages that have been fully reviewed, 91 percent were declassified and put on open access to researchers. 

During the year we have processed for release, documents that reflect a number of significant issues.  These range in topic from foreign and domestic events to military armaments. For example, in US Army records we processed R&D information from the General Purpose Machine Gun Project Files, which led to the adoption of the 7.62mm M60 machine gun, the standard U.S. machine gun used during the Vietnam War; and the Self-Propelled Artillery Project Files, which led to the adoption of the M107/M110 175mm gun/8-inch howitzer used by the U.S. Army from @1963-Operation Desert Storm. 

In our Records Relating to Civil Rights, 1949 – 1958, we processed reports, memos, studies, and congressional hearings on racial matters in the United States military services, revealing a snapshot of African American life in the US military during the 1940s and early 1950s.  Specifically, this material covered the Army’s racial policies; African American attitudes towards World War II;  racial behavior in the service; treatment of African Americans in the military services; Congressman Adam C. Powel’s concern for the treatment of African American servicemen; studies on morale, training, equality, and assignments; as well as a study on the Ku Klux Klan (from the FBI).  In another series of particular interest were instructions on the employment of military forces to control civil disorders in the cities of Washington, DC, Chicago, IL, Baltimore, MD, and Memphis, TN after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April 1968.

Now that we have the processes in place, we can move more quickly to eliminate the backlog and get these records on open shelves for researchers.

In attacking this problem, we also involved the public. In all of its activities, the NDC included opportunities for public comment in developing its strategic prioritization plan. Draft versions of the plan were posted on the NDC’s web site and comment was invited on the NDC blog, by e-mail and at public meetings.


At the Archives, as I have said, we provide as much access as possible to public records. But we also know that the release of some records could cause harm to our nation’s security, and they must be protected.

Striking this careful balance is at the heart of the role of our Information Security Oversight Office— we call it I-SOO—which has a very big job when it comes to classifying and declassifying government materials.

ISOO oversees the classification and declassification programs of government agencies—ensuring public access where appropriate while safeguarding classified national security information.

Through its oversight and related educational and outreach activities, ISOO strives to ensure that only information that requires protection is classified. But we also ensure that the information is classified only for as long as is necessary and that declassification programs make sound decisions.

There are now 2,475 classification guides within the federal government. Some of them are for entire agencies, some for a specific weapon system or a program, and others for a component of a system or program.  ISOO is concerned that with so many classification guides, information is treated in an inconsistent manner within and between agencies. 

In addition to seeking to reduce the number of guides and to increase consistency, one of ISOO’s jobs is to make sure that these classification guides are reviewed and updated at least every five years. 

We’ve had some success on this front in the past few years.  In 2008, only a third of the classification guides used by agencies had been updated within the previous five years.  Two years later, three-quarters of them had undergone such a review.

ISOO also assesses the programs used by agencies to declassify material.  Two years ago, about a third of the agencies got a high score --- but in two years that number doubled to two-thirds of the agencies with high scores.

Not all sensitive information is classified, however, but requires some form of safeguarding or limits on dissemination.  We call these records “sensitive but unclassified” or “controlled unclassified information.” 

For example, information in your tax, medical, or law enforcement records falls into this category.  President Obama has ordered reforms in the ad-hoc, agency-centric approaches to information in this category, and ISOO has been called on to lead these reforms.

Another part of ISOO supports a body called the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel – ICE CAP for short. It serves as the final appeals authority of agency decisions on the requests from the public for an agency to review its classification of a particular document.  These requests are similar to the FOIA requests that OGIS works with, but are only for classified material.

Since its first meeting in May of 1996, this body has overturned agency decisions in whole or part for 65 percent of the documents that have come before it.

Another important function served by ISOO is that of executive secretary and staff for the Public Interest Declassification Board.  Several years ago, the board gave the President 49 recommendations on how to improve declassification programs; one was for a National Declassification Center.

The Board is now working on recommendations for a fundamental transformation of the overall classification system and has recently launched a blog for the posting of white papers on the future of classification and declassification.  I encourage you to visit https://www.archives.gov/declassification/pidb to join in the conversation.


The National Archives has a unique role in our government as the nation’s recordkeeper. But it also has a role that is shared with every other government agency, and that is protecting our national security.

We take this responsibility very seriously. 

Our Declassification Center has a slogan that could just as well serve as one for our entire agency: “Releasing all we can, protecting what we must.”

Thank you.