Prologue Magazine

Challenges: Those We Met, Those We Face

Winter 2008, Vol. 40, No. 4

By Allen Weinstein

Archivist of the United States


Nearly four years have passed since I became Archivist of the United States, and it seems appropriate to review some of the challenges the National Archives has faced, the ones we are meeting, and those still to come.

In early 2005, the major challenges confronting the Archives involved expediting public access to NARA's holdings and mobilizing NARA to provide that access.

The major challenges, then and now:

Reducing the enormous backlog of records—among the 9 billion pages of records in NARA's custody—that had not been adequately processed.

Approximately 50 percent of the textual records in the Washington area were not yet processed sufficiently to enable efficient access. A comparable percentage of inadequately processed records are in the regional archives and presidential libraries.

A doubling of the volume of accessions over a decade, other pressing needs and priorities, and staff cuts resulted in this 10-year backlog. In 2007 we decided to reorganize and reprioritize resources for processing by reassigning staff. Congress helped by providing funds for 12 additional staff archivists.

As of now, staff have processed 30 percent of that backlog. I commend these individuals for their efforts and the accommodations they made to undertake this critical work that will benefit staff and researchers for generations.

Pushing ahead with the Electronic Records Archives (ERA), which NARA is building to preserve and make accessible in the future the electronic records of today and tomorrow.

Earlier this year, the ERA had its successful initial run with the acceptance of electronic records from four federal agencies, and work by ERA staff and our partner, Lockheed Martin, on the next phase continues at a good pace.

The ERA will be the repository of the ever-increasing numbers of electronic records of the federal government. This will include the records of the Executive Office of the President at the end of President George W. Bush's term on January 20, 2009.

The National Archives has also entered into several partnerships to digitize, and make available via the Internet as soon as possible, and eventually on the ERA, traditional records that now can only be viewed on paper or microfilm.

Fostering an appreciation of the Archives' role as the nation's record keeper and of the records we keep by expanding education, museum, and civic literacy programs at all NARA facilities nationwide.

Here in Washington, we established the Boeing Learning Center, with the generous support of The Boeing Company, to provide a major resource and direction to teachers all around the country who want to enhance the engagement of students in the study of history, civics, government, and social studies. At the same time, the summer workshop, Primarily Teaching, has been expanded to eight locations around the country.

The National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) programs have also received increased support. NHPRC was recently given new authority to offer research grants related to presidential records of those U.S. Presidents prior to Herbert Hoover. NHPRC grants for preserving and making accessible nonfederal records have contributed enormously to historical scholarship over the decades.

Throughout the agency, we have increased our efforts to lift the level of civic literacy generally so that citizens may have a greater appreciation of the importance of NARA and of the records that guarantee their rights, hold their government accountable, and chronicle the American experience.

In 2008, the online "Digital Vaults" was added to our arsenal of educational outreach programs. Much of this effort has been made possible by the generous support of the Foundation for the National Archives and its indefatigable president, Tom Wheeler. I salute the Foundation directors and staff for their magnificent work in helping the Archives bring more of our holdings to the public and in promoting the Archives' civic education efforts.

Encouraging greater cooperation among the presidential libraries in the NARA system—and expanding that system.

The ties among the libraries continue to strengthen. One example of this is the Presidential Timeline,, a major online resource of presidential materials. The timeline covering the presidents from Herbert Hoover forward provides a seamless history of America from an Oval Office perspective for the past 80 years.

In 2007, NARA completed difficult negotiations to bring the private Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California, into the system of presidential libraries, and the Nixon presidential records held in College Park are being carefully moved to the new Richard Nixon Presidential Library. Meanwhile, preparations are being made for the George W. Bush Library to be located next to the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

A year ago, the presidential libraries sponsored, at the Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, a two-day symposium on "The Presidency and the Supreme Court," following an earlier successful symposium on the legacy of Vietnam at the Kennedy Library in Boston. Other joint activities will follow in the years ahead.

Ensuring proper classification and declassification of government records.

Since 2005, NARA has worked on several fronts to make as much of our holdings accessible to the public as easily as possible. For example, we ended the practice of reclassifying records that had already been declassified, and most of those records that had been previously withdrawn for reclassification have now been restored to the open stacks.

The National Archives' Information Security Oversight Office monitors the security classification program throughout the government. Beginning this year, the National Archives now also oversees the implementation of a recently announced, government-wide framework for standardizing processes and procedures for what is often referred to as "sensitive but unclassified" information.

We have ensured that our efforts are transparent and have provided a clear roadmap, consistent with the President's direction, to ensure that only information genuinely requiring protection is classified and controlled and then only for as long as necessary.

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Other challenges also confront us: The National Archives continues to experience a "brain drain," the loss of experienced staff due to death, retirement, and resignation. Many of our physical plants are aging and in need of repair and renovation. And we constantly battle to preserve deteriorating records and unconscionable administrative backlogs.

In short, the challenges never end, and the work continues . . .


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.