Prologue Magazine

Scanning the Past to Make Access Happen

Summer 2014, Vol. 46, No. 2

By David S. Ferriero

Archivist of the United States​


The National Archives' commitment to open government is clear in our mission: We drive openness, cultivate public participation, and strengthen our nation's democracy through public access to high-value records.

In the 21st century, access means digital access. For many, if a record isn't online, it simply doesn't exist.

In our Open Government Plan for 2014–2016, our flagship initiative, "Innovate to Make Access Happen," describes our digitization, description, and online access efforts for the next two years.

"Make Access Happen" is one of the four goals in our new Strategic Plan for 2014 to 2018. And to make access happen, we will establish more substantial "roots" that increase the number of records that we digitize and strengthen the "core" systems that serve as our platforms for all of our online access—the agency's Online Public Access catalog and

With substantial roots and a strong core, we can "branch out" in innovative ways through engagement and collaboration so that the public can make greater use of National Archives records.

The components of this plan's flagship initiative are led by the new Office of Innovation, which is the focal point for innovation across the agency and works to strengthen engagement and collaboration among staff, stakeholders, and the public.

We have recently established a digitization governance board that is charged with updating the agency's digitization strategy. We will develop a program to support the strategic initiative to digitize our analog archival records. We are also exploring new ways to expand our successful digitization partnerships.

Earlier this spring we launched a new internal description system. Staff members working on description projects are entering all descriptive metadata into the new system.

We also plan to launch an improved Online Public Access system later this year, with improved search and scalability, a public API, and crowdsourcing fields for citizen archivists to contribute to the National Archives Catalog.

In the next two years, I want the National Archives and Records Administration to become a leader in innovation. We will launch a new Innovation Hub, an experimental unit that will be responsible for developing new ideas and tools to enhance digital access and archival research.

We will sponsor two fellows during the third round of the Presidential Innovation Fellows program in 2014. The fellows will lead open development of crowdsourcing tools that will help unlock data and information from records formats and allow the public to easily contribute to the records.

Over the next two years we will work to increase the number of National Archives records available on Wikimedia Commons, continue our work to engage local communities of volunteer Wikipedians with on-site events, and collaborate on the development of the GLAM-Wiki U.S. Consortium.

In 2013 alone, 4,000 digital copies of our records that were included in Wikipedia articles garnered more than 1.3 billion views. That is unprecedented access to our records.

We have a great deal of work ahead. But as you can see, digitizing the historical records of the federal government—scanning the past—is foundational to making 21st-century access happen.

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.