Prologue Magazine

Transforming the Archives

Winter 2010, Vol. 42, No. 4

By David S. Ferriero

When I came to the National Archives and Records Administration as Archivist a year ago, I was somewhat awed, appropriately so, by its holdings.

There were 10 billion pages of records, millions of photographs and images, miles of film and video and audio tape and countless historic artifacts. And famous documents with famous signatures. And researchers of all kinds working on legal briefs, articles, and books that might someday win a Pulitzer Prize. And ordinary folks coming in to trace their family history.

This was all impressive. But some things weren't impressive.

The use of electronic records in government was exploding at the same time that rapidly changing technology was allowing people to communicate and interact with each other virtually via Web 2.0. The Archives was way behind in adapting to these new technologies; we needed to catch up.

Federal fiscal problems government-wide were putting constraints on available resources, and customers and stakeholders were feeling underserved and unheard. The Archives staff identified strongly with the Archives' mission, but there was much discontent in the ranks; in fact, NARA was recently rated among the worst places to work in the federal government.

We needed to rethink how we do our jobs and how we operate as an agency to be able to exist and thrive in the digital age; something transformative had to be done.

That' just what we're doing now within the National Archives. We're undergoing a transformation—one that will have an effect at all our locations—those in the Washington and St. Louis areas as well as our regional archives, federal records centers and presidential libraries.

We're doing it in concert with President Obama's Open Government Initiative, which has as its goal the transformation of the relationship between government and the people—and within government itself— through more transparency, participation, and collaboration.

Last summer, I appointed a small task force to come up with a plan to transform the agency. The draft of the five-year plan was shared with the staff, and hundreds of comments were received. In early fall, I approved and shared with the entire staff the final plan, and now we're now in the process of implementing it.

Briefly, here's what we're doing.

The Task Force identified six transformational outcomes that would be the guiding force in developing the organizational structure necessary to address key challenges NARA is facing.

  • One NARA: An agency with unified and coordinated services to delivered to customers efficiently and effectively.
  • A Customer-Focused Organization: An agency with structures and processes so staff can more effectively meet customer needs.
  • Out in Front: An agency that embraces the primacy of electronic information in all its work and positions itself as a leader and innovator in this area.
  • An Agency of Leaders: An agency that fosters a culture of leadership, not just as a position, but how each individual works proactively.
  • A Great Place to Work: An agency that trusts, empowers, and listens to all staff, the agency's most vital resource.
  • An Open NARA: An agency that opens organizational boundaries to learn from others, inside and outside NARA.

We are reorganizing NARA, but that will not by itself bring about the change in outlook that we need. That change will come from our staff—the best and the brightest, equipped with the proper tools, located in the right environment, and motivated by an appreciative audience.

You, our customers, come to the Archives with a variety of requests—for documents to build a family history or to verify military service or to do major research on a particular subject. We believe this transformation will result in a more productive, enriching, and successful experience at the National Archives for you. We want you to know that you will have at your disposal the full resources of the National Archives, not just one particular unit.

As the plan is implemented over the next few years, you'll begin to see positive changes. We hope you like them.

Join the Archivist at his own blog and visit the National Archives website.

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