Prologue Magazine

Making Access Easier

Summer 2011, Vol. 43, No. 2

By David S. Ferriero

Archivist of the United States


For many years, a visit to the National Archives meant standing in long lines, then elbowing your way through crowds to view historic documents. Or spending hours in Archives reading rooms sorting through boxes of old documents or scrolling through frame after frame of microfilm.

Not anymore. Now, you can also visit us and do research from the palm of your hand with just a touch on your smartphone.

Smartphone applications take you right to our website, our blogs, our Facebook or Flickr or Foursquare locations, or our materials on YouTube.

Rapid advances in technology have increased the demand for digital content on our own web site and through social media. This has made our mission—providing access to our holdings—more efficient, more effective and a whole lot easier. And fun! Let's look at some examples.

We are on Foursquare, a location-based app that allows users to get tips and see records when they check in at places around the country. This app draws attention to our records from an audience who might not think that the holdings of the National Archives would interest them.

For instance, guests checking in to Grand Mesa National Forest can go to Online Public Access, a feature on our public web site that searches all our records nationwide. There, they can call up an image of the park as it was in the 1970s in a record from our DOCUMERICA collection.

If you are in London and check in at the gate of Buckingham Palace, you will be able to see an image of the recipe for scones that Queen Elizabeth sent President Eisenhower—or details of the first visit by a British monarch to the United States in 1939.

Other image-based social media platforms, like Flickr and Tumblr, encourage viewers to share interesting photographs from National Archives holdings. Viewers can participate in crowdsharing by tagging the photographs in Flickr, such as identifying Civil War ships or the names of people in the photograph.

While waiting in line at the National Archives Building to see the Charters of Freedom, visitors can pass the time by downloading the "Today's Document" app to their phones, giving them access to a wide range of records 365 days a year.

You can also catch up on history by accessing past and current articles from this magazine on on your smartphone. Scribd will shortly launch a new reader feed with "channels," that will automatically suggest Prologue articles to readers interested in history.

And if you follow one of our Twitter feeds, you may see a link that will take you to a featured record, event, or video about the Civil War, a new exhibit, or a chance to #AskArchivists. Users can retweet or respond, passing the record around the social media universe.

All this represents the cutting edge of what we're doing to broaden and deepen access to our holdings. Technology helps us do this job—through our web site and social media—and it is key to preserving the records being created electronically today.

Our principal means for preserving them is the Electronic Records Archives, which moves from the development stage to the full operational stage in the fall of 2011. It will make accessible on the Internet, through Online Public Access, the most important electronic records—2 to 3 percent of all those created now and in the future.

But many of the records people come to the Archives to see are not electronic—they are traditional paper records, and we have about 10 billion pages of them, and they must be digitized.

This process is expensive and time-consuming, so we are digitizing most-frequently-requested records first. Through a series of partnerships with commercial entities, we are getting many records digitized in return for, in some cases, use for a limited time by the partner for a fee on its web site. Eventually, these records will all be available free on our web site, but without these partnerships, it would be impossible to scan these records ourselves.

But there are other ways we are providing access to high-interest records.

We are stepping in to help resolve Freedom of Information Act disputes between federal agencies and requesters. In its first year, it resolved four out of five of the cases that rose to the level of disputes.

We will eliminate, by the end of 2013, a backlog of about 400 million pages of unprocessed classified records. So far, we have streamlined the reviewing process and put a big dent in the backlog, evaluating about 14,000 pages a month. And 91 percent of the pages reviewed are being declassified and going to the open shelves.

Since we oversee the federal classification and declassification programs, we are increasing our focus on making sure agencies classify only material that needs to be classified and only for as long as need be.

The National Archives is working to increase your access to your records, whether it's for serious business or just enjoyment.

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.