About the National Archives

Welcome Remarks for Virginia Tech/NARA Artificial Intelligence Conference

Greetings from the National Archives Building. I am pleased to welcome you to this conference on artificial intelligence co-hosted by the National Archives and Virginia Tech. The National Archives has 44 locations all over the country, not just in the Washington, DC, area. Today I am speaking to you from our iconic flagship building at 700 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC, which is on the ancestral lands of the Nacotchtank peoples.

For many years, we have heard about the promise held by artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies. Advancements in recent years have made it possible for us to contemplate how we might apply these powerful tools to our work. We appreciate the experts from around the country, who are gathering with us over the next five meetings to discuss the ways these technologies can support NARA’s work and enhance public access to our records.

Many years ago when I was a librarian at MIT—where Artificial Intelligence was invented—I used to dream about the day when the Lab would turn its attention to the library, the way the Operations Research Lab had done. We even had Hal Abel, the AI Lab director on the Library Advisory Committee. No progress. So…I have been waiting a long time for some concrete experimentation in this area. Hence, my excitement for this gathering and my hope that this is the beginning of the fulfillment of my dreams!

In this conference, you will be focusing not just on the technical possibilities, which are important for NARA to learn about and implement, but you are also focusing on the ethical use of AI, which is critical to our successful adoption of these emerging technologies. You have at least one session devoted to the subject of bias, and I believe that will be time well spent. 

Last summer, NARA employees throughout the agency engaged in a dialogue on race and our roles in making improvements as an agency. To turn our conversations into action, I created a Task Force on Racism to address racial inequality in both our customer-facing operations and internally within our workplaces in pursuit of an equitable and inclusive environment for all employees and customers.

As you know, the National Archives is the country’s record keeper. Given the fact that many of the permanent records of the federal government are inherently biased––the majority of the records were created by a particular race and sex of people in power––the issue of bias, and how we ensure that we recognize and mitigate this bias as we provide access must be considered in all of our work with technology.  

In this conference, you will be diving deep into the possibilities for self-describing records and easier public access to our records. Over the past few years, NARA has made great strides in digitizing our records and making them available online. This democratization of access to our records is central to our strategic goal to make access happen. And I continue my commitment to digitize everything. But as we increase the numbers of our digital records, we also need to ensure that the records are well described and are easy for the public to find and use. We know that we simply do not have the resources to do all of this work manually. We must look to technological tools to support our efforts to effectively make access happen in the digital era. 

I am pleased to see that staff from numerous areas of the National Archives are participating in this important conference. You are an agency of leaders exploring new possibilities. I hope you all enjoy the conference and take advantage of this opportunity to live the values of the National Archives which are to collaborate, innovate, and learn.