About the National Archives

Challenges as We Move to the 21st Century

John W. Carlin
Archivist of the United States

Keynote Address Records and Information Management Symposium,
Department of the Treasury

April 1, 1998


I know speakers always say they're glad to be wherever they're speaking, whether they have the time or not, but I really am glad to get to keynote your conference this morning. As Archivist of the United States, heading the National Archives and Records Administration --"NARA," N-A-R-A, for short--I told a Congressional subcommittee at an appropriations hearing on Tuesday last week that we at NARA need to expand our contact and improve our work with all Federal agencies.

On Friday last week I took the same message here. I met at the Treasury Department with Assistant Secretary Nancy Killifer and others, including Jim Flyzik, about records management, how important it is, particularly in the electronic age, and our need to work together. It was a really helpful meeting, one of eleven I've had so far with top-level administrators of major Federal agencies. And we're going to keep talking because the problems we face can only be addressed by collaboration.

So it is obvious why I really am glad to be here. For it gives me another chance to meet with agency officials and present my message, which is very simple. We in the government face huge records challenges. All of us in the government face those problems. But NARA has a special responsibility to help the government succeed. And to do that, we know that NARA needs to partner better. It's in that spirit that I'm grateful for this chance to talk with you this morning.

Before I get into the challenges, let me just tell you a couple of other things.

First I think it's progress even to be having this symposium. You're taking a day out of your regular work, which I'm sure is piling up while you're here, in recognition that it's important to think about "electronic information management in the millennium," your conference theme, and ask yourselves the question, "are we ready?" I congratulate Jim Flyzik and all the rest of you who have put this meeting together. And I applaud all of you for taking time out to face the future this way.

The other thing I want to say in advance is something about me. I'm not here pretending to be a trained, experienced professional information or records manager, or even a certified archivist. I'm a public administrator, a former governor and professor of public administration, who's in this job because I believe in it. In fact, after nearly three years dealing with NARA's records issues, I've come to think this is the best job I ever had. Let me start by taking just a few minutes to tell you why.

First, there's so much more to NARA than most people would ever imagine. Besides the grand old National Archives Building downtown in Washington, we operate the new Archives building in College Park, Maryland; eighteen federal records service centers across the country, such as you at the Treasury Department and other agencies use; and ten Presidential libraries from Herbert Hoover to George Bush, with President Clinton's to come. Also, NARA administers the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, which among other things makes grants to state and local units for the improvement of records management; the Information Security Oversight Office, which monitors the classification and declassification of government records; and the Federal Register, which publishes Federal laws, rules, regulations, executive orders, public notices, and other current government information. All that's part of NARA.

The second thing that excites me about this job is what's in government records. In our archival facilities, we're preserving for public use in perpetuity nearly two million cubic feet of textual records--that's billions of individual records--not to mention millions of maps, charts, architectural and engineering plans, photographs, motion picture reels, and video and sound recordings. Our new College Park facility alone contains more than 500 miles of shelving, which end-to-end would stretch from Washington, D.C., to Toronto. And that doesn't count the millions of items in our Presidential libraries, where people not only use Presidential records and records donated by members of Presidential administrations, but where they also view exhibits of historical artifacts that document the nation's history during each Presidency.

Our archives contain an unending range of fascinating treasures, most of which were created by government agencies like yours: records of the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, Vietnam; the Emancipation Proclamation, Monroe Doctrine, Louisiana Purchase, Marshall Plan, and the famous Nixon Watergate tapes. Our records range from a Federal warrant issued for the arrest of Wyatt Earp as a horse thief to the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination, and include, of course, records of the Treasury among other agencies represented here today.

But you don't just need to listen to me tell about our fascinating resources. You can explore them on your own. Make a note of the Web site address of the National Archives and Records Administration: www.archives.gov. When you leave here, turn on a computer--on break time, of course--with an Internet connection, or later at your home or wherever, and go to that address: www.archives.gov. There you will gain access to an astonishing trove of documentary treasure. You will find on-line images of more than 40,000 original documents and photographs, to which we'll be adding another 90,000 in the coming year. Items available already range from Mathew Brady's Civil War photographs to photos from the Kennedy White House. And in addition, through our Web site, you can electronically access the NARA Archival Information Locator-- "NAIL," as we fondly call it-- where you can begin your hunt for whatever research material you need in our archives without leaving your computer. And that brings me to the more than eighteen million cubic feet of records that we keep for the Treasury and other Federal agencies in our records services centers--records that remain useful to you and other agencies but no longer require being kept in your own offices.

And just who is using all this material? As I speak, visitors from across the country and the world are mounting the steps of the National Archives Building not far from here to see the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights--the Charters of Freedom--that we display there. Veterans are calling our Military Personnel Records Center in St. Louis for documentation of their entitlement to medical, educational, and employment benefits. Scholars are working in our Presidential libraries on books we and our children will read to understand significant parts of American history. Scholars, journalists, film makers, genealogists, lawyers, and many other people are doing all kinds of research at our archival facilities. On their computers, school teachers are calling up documents that we have made electronically accessible for classroom use. And of course the government itself is a major NARA customer--in fact, by far the largest. We have records of the Congress and the Courts as well as records of the Presidents and the Executive Branch. And officials in nearly every government agency are contacting our federal records services centers from Atlanta to Anchorage to retrieve records needed to respond to legal or financial requirements, to meet citizens' FOIA requests, and to do all kinds of other government business. In fact, of the approximately 20 million reference requests we handle each year, 31 percent are for the IRS, 60 percent for the remainder of the Federal Government, 7 percent for military personnel, and 2 percent for everyone else.

But it is not just the quantity of records and facilities, not just the action and excitement of the inventory, that makes being Archivist so attractive. It is the third reason and one I share with you now that really sets this job apart. You and I both, I would guess--all of us who deal with records and information management--get bogged down in the daily nitty-gritty so much from time to time that we lose sight of why it matters. But effective records management does matter for more than the usual reasons. We talk about the need for good records management, electronic or otherwise, in terms of economy and efficiency. When records get lost, time gets wasted. When records can't be retrieved, those who need them can't be helped. Inefficient recordkeeping produces inefficient government. But there's even more to it. We have to overcome the challenges we face as records managers because democracy needs it. Open government, accountable to the people, requires open records, accessible to the people, now, and in the years to come. Let me explain more of what I mean.

Not long ago the United States Government was on the verge of resuming military action against the government of Iraq. The Gulf War originally began, you recall, when Iraq made an attempt to take over the nation of Kuwait. But it was more than the borders of Kuwait that Iraq intended to erase. It was also the separate identity of Kuwait's people. One of the United Nations resolutions that led to the Gulf War was a condemnation of attempts by Iraq "to destroy the civil records maintained by the legitimate government of Kuwait."

Why? Because such records document the legitimacy of a government. And such records document whatever legal standing, rights, and entitlements the citizens of a country have. However democratic or undemocratic Kuwait itself may have been, Saddam Hussein certainly understood that getting rid of records, or otherwise denying access to them, makes it a lot easier to end a nation's independence and subjugate its citizens. The Serbs in the Bosnian War understood that, too, when they shelled the National Library in Sarajevo along with other cultural institutions. And when the founding fathers and mothers of our own country revolted against the King of Great Britain, the charges they made against him in the Declaration of Independence included this: "He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public records . . . ."

Recently, some children who visited our Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library reported having, "fun" by "using a special computer that allowed us to make Presidential decisions." One parent thanked our staff there for a tour given to her child--"a future President"! Now, in dictatorships, this does not happen. Children did not write to Stalin and Hitler about being inspired to take over as heads of government or learning how. Under authoritarian regimes, government records tend not to support rights, entitlements, public insight, and political understanding. Instead government files support surveillance, suspicion, political suppression, and persecution. Records there have a different kind of meaning in people's lives than they do in a democratic society.

Not the least of the importance of records in a democracy is their indispensability for justice. The government and the public both need records to defend themselves in courts where people are allowed to present evidence, rather than being denied access to it, so that justice can prevail. But let me take a more dramatic example. You've all seen or heard reports in the press about efforts to trace "Nazi Gold," looted from victims of the Holocaust. Much research already has been undertaken in the National Archives. Last year the Department of State issued a Preliminary Study of U.S. and Allied Efforts to Recover and Restore Gold and Other Assets Stolen or Hidden by Germany During World War II. In his foreword to the Preliminary Study, State Department Undersecretary Stuart E. Eisenstat described that work as follows:

All involved have worked tirelessly in beginning the process of reviewing 15 million pages of documentation in the National Archives. This represents the largest such effort ever undertaken using the Archives' records, and it has required the declassification and transfer of more documents at one time--between 800,000 and one million pages--than ever before in the history of that repository.

This was possible only because the records were created by agencies and preserved by NARA and are now being made accessible. And a sizeable part of them were Treasury records from Record Group 56.

Which is a nice transition to the realities and the headaches of today. Let me be as clear as I can. Under federal law, we share responsibility with all of your agencies to manage records effectively. Along with everything else I've described, we help you meet your legal responsibilities for creating and keeping records of certain kinds. You can't throw anything away without my approval, but Federal law, not the Archivist, requires that you keep good records. And the Federal Records Act specifically says, "The Archivist shall provide guidance and assistance to Federal agencies with respect to ensuring adequate and proper documentation of the policies and transactions of the Federal Government and ensuring proper records disposition." That is, the law does not make us adversaries; it puts us into partnership. And to manage records in the future, we at NARA want to partner better. In the past, NARA has been too reactive, not pro-active, in helping the agencies manage their records. We've been too oriented to the back end of the life cycle and to records disposal, and not enough to records creation and the front end. I freely admit that we have been way too slow in recognizing the need to deal with the electronic issues, and this has resulted in being told by courts to do what we should have done on our own.

But it's not just the lawsuits pushing us. The sheer volume of records with which we must cope has mushroomed in just the past decade. NARA holdings have been increasing by more than one-half million cubic feet of records per year, and we've about run out of records center space just to house them adequately. Many of the records we already hold need special preservation treatment to stop deterioration caused by acidic paper, acetate-based film, and other hazards. On top of that, government computers are now producing enormous volumes of electronic mail, word-processing documents, and automated databases. Let me give you a dramatic illustration from NARA's point of view. Over the past quarter century, from 1972 to 1998, NARA has taken into our archives approximately 90,000 files of electronic records from the Federal Government as a whole. We estimate right now that the Treasury Department alone is generating annually, in e-mail only, 960,000 files of electronic records that we are likely to need to archive. That's more than ten times as much just from one agency, in one year, as we've received in a quarter-century from the entire government.

But you and NARA and the rest of the government are trying to cope not only with the volume but with the special problems that these records pose. As you know, electronic material is easily deleted. Computer tapes and disks quickly deteriorate. And the hardware and software systems on which they can be read become rapidly obsolete. And as we struggle with these problems, some of us, as I've indicated, get sued in court for not solving them fast enough.

What worries me and those who sue us alike is this: The Federal Government, along with everybody else in the age of digitized information, is losing unknown amounts of potentially valuable records. NARA has preserved paper dispatches that generals sent and received in the course of conducting the Civil War more than a hundred years ago, but a hundred years from now will electronic records remain accessible on which to study command decisions in the Gulf War? Or, just to take the current daily headlines, how much of the record material accumulating in the computers of the various independent prosecutors will survive deletion, deterioration, and the discarding of machinery that can read it? Neglected paper records could sit around in boxes for many years until we did something to save them, but neglected electronic records simply disappear. Maybe you have seen, on public television, a new documentary entitled, "Into the Future," which explains why all this digital information we are generating may not survive. At a conference last month at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, participants warned that society, and I quote, "is courting disaster." For as one participant said, "Historians will look back on this era and see a period of very little information. A digital gap will span from the beginning of the wide-spread use of the computer until the time we eventually solve this problem." Let me tell you, there's no question about such a gap. The only question is, how big will it get before we learn how to preserve and provide perpetual access to vast quantities of electronic information?

The fact is inescapable that the Federal Government and every agency within it, including NARA, must address realistically a future in which government recordkeeping will be increasingly electronic. The question is--how are we going to do it?

To begin with, we at NARA speak to the issue in a Strategic Plan, which you can access on our Web site. It contains no magic, but neither does it back away from our mission, which we've summed up as this: to provide ready access to essential evidence that documents the rights of citizens, the actions of Federal officials, and the national experience. This plan recognizes that more and more records are going to be electronic. Accordingly, our plan pledges NARA "to work in active partnership with Federal officials"--that's you--"to assure ourselves that essential evidence is created, identified, maintained, and appropriately scheduled for as long as needed"; to "work with agencies to make our current scheduling and appraisal processes more effective and timely"; and "to ensure that electronic as well as paper records are created and preserved for access as long as needed."

The plan sets incremental targets, under the Government Performance and Results Act. My expert colleague, Mike Miller, who heads NARA's records management division, will get into greater detail on these matters, but I want to tell you some of the things we've already got going. And as I lead in, I want to go back to the last question I was asked at our appropriation subcommittee hearing last week. We had given the subcommittee a chart illustrating the enormous volume of electronic files we expected agencies to turn over to us in the very near future. Congressman Hoyer, going back to that chart, asked me, "Does the government have enough resources to solve this problem?" I replied, yes, if we wisely invest we can make technology work for us. Technology got us into this difficulty, and technology must get us out.

One of the many challenges is that currently available software makes it too hard now to maintain good recordkeeping practices for electronic records. We need to harness the power of information technology to help us do the recordkeeping job more successfully. Until very recently, there has been no software available that fits our needs, mainly because of a lack of articulated functional requirements that software developers could utilize as a standard. Several years ago, the Department of Defense began to develop standards for electronic recordkeeping. With assistance from NARA and others, the Defense Department has now developed functional requirements for Records Management Application software. The DoD has established a certification and testing service for ascertaining whether particular software meets these requirements. Now we need to work with other agencies to determine whether the DoD standards can be applied government-wide. And NARA has entered into an agreement with the Defense Department to do just that.

I've committed NARA to developing practical approaches to the management and disposition of electronic records through other partnerships as well. Last fall, I asked government records professionals experienced with automated records to join with specialists from NARA to form an Electronic Records Work Group. I asked the group "to review issues relating to the creation, maintenance, and disposition of certain types of electronic information," focusing on what some of you know as General Records Schedule 20. GRS-20 was developed to provide guidelines to federal agencies on the disposition of e-mail, word-processing files, and other computer-generated material. As many of you know, a lawsuit was filed, and in subsequent action, the court declared GRS-20 null and void. We know that changes are needed, and the Work Group already is making progress to accomplish the desired overall result--to preserve records appropriately with retention and disposition schedules that Federal agencies, you who are the creators of these records, can and will use. Bottom line--I recommend that we should schedule programmatic records, and we will, but we want to make that transition in a sane way that minimizes disruption to Federal agencies and does not set off unintended consequences.

I asked the Electronic Records Work Group for a final report with an implementation plan by September 30, and I am delighted at how quickly and enthusiastically this interagency group has come together. I also recruited some electronic-records specialists outside the government to help them, and we have been welcoming additional public contributions along the way. Already the Electronic Records Work Group has held two major public meetings, and has proposed several options for a new electronic records policy, for which the group has sought public comment. The Work Group will hold another public meeting on April 7 at 9 a.m. at the Office of Thrift Supervision. Our private-sector consultants will be participating in the meeting, and again we're inviting the interested public. The paper identifying options the group is considering, and additional information about the Work Group, are available on the NARA Web site at www.archives.gov. That's where you'll find everything produced by the group as its work goes forward, and you can make comments if you like. Let me add that the group's members include Alan Proctor from the Treasury Department, our host today, for whose help we're grateful.

Also, we have several other things in the works that will cut our costs and improve our services to agencies like yours. Already, for example, we have launched a business process re-engineering study in our Military Personnel Records Center in St. Louis to determine how we can streamline our processes and take better advantage of new information technology to respond faster to records retrieval requests. And on the front-end of the records cycle, if the Congress approves funds requested for NARA in President Clinton's budget for 1999, we will carry out another business process re-engineering of the ways in which we identify, appraise, schedule, and track records in collaboration with Federal agencies. This will start us towards meeting our objectives to decrease the time it takes for NARA to appraise and approve records schedules, permit agencies to submit schedules and receive NARA approval on-line, and in other ways improve NARA's customer service to Federal agencies and the public. Funds proposed by the President for NARA also would allow us to put more people to work providing guidance and assistance to Washington and field agencies to address records needs. This would include developing retention schedules for at-risk records, recommending programs to improve the management of these records, and providing increased and improved communications and training to agencies. Moreover, the proposed funds would help us implement recommendations that will be coming from the inter-agency Electronic Records Work Group I described, and would support our work with agencies on such initiatives as the Department of Defense Baseline Requirements for Records Management Applications, from which, as I mentioned, we hope to develop electronic recordkeeping requirements and find tools, standards, and products capable of meeting these requirements for agencies throughout the government.

In NARA's Strategic Plan, and in our budget proposals to the President and the Congress, we are committed to more and better service, not less, to Federal agencies. OMB has informed agencies that, starting in FY2000, all agencies that use NARA's records center storage and related services will reimburse NARA, as the IRS already does. Our extension of reimbursable services not only is more fair to those such as IRS that are paying now, but also is part of a multifaceted program for strengthening records management government-wide and meeting the huge new challenges of the electronic information age. The alternative is to go on being drained by costs for just records storage to the point that NARA cannot continue to provide agencies with adequate amounts even of that. And that would be a dead end for us all.

Our Strategic Plan puts particular emphasis on assisting Federal agencies in developing good records management practices. To do that, agencies need to integrate records management with the business process and with information resources management--at every stage of the systems and the records life cycle. Even before the creation of records, records managers need to be involved. When planners sit around a table to discuss the functional requirements for a new records system, a records manager should be present. When you design the information architecture for the agency, you need to build in recordkeeping functionalities appropriate for the full life cycle of the records. When you design imaging systems or word processing systems or others, have you thought about the metadata each document needs--information about the documents' content, context and structure? When a document is created, is the user prompted to select a file code for that document--a file code from your records schedule with an associated retention period? Can you separate the temporary from the permanent records in an automated system--without extensive new programming? Do you have plans in place to migrate permanent or long-term records so they retain a usable format as long as needed?

Applying this to our host agency, I'm pleased to note that, as a result of evaluations by NARA, Treasury Departmental Offices are creating a records inventory that will ultimately result in a new records schedule. Customs is revising its comprehensive records schedule. The U.S. Mint has completed a revision of its records management directives and is conducting a comprehensive inventory of all its records in all media. The Secret Service has scheduled several important series of records that had never been scheduled before. All of these bureaus are beginning to do a much better job of bringing electronic records systems into the records scheduling and control process.

And finally, I am pleased to be able to single out for commendation the Internal Revenue Service and its records staff. By the end of this quarter, we anticipate that the IRS will have followed through with actions to complete all of the recommendations made by NARA at the time of the evaluation we did two years ago. In the dozen years of our modern evaluation program, no other agency has completed all of the recommendations so rapidly.

In closing, let me go back to the big picture, to the reason it is so important that we do these things, that we solve our problems, that we manage records effectively to meet government's own needs and provide public access. The greatest revelation for me as Archivist of the United States has come in the realization that every time we help the White House, the Congress, the courts, and the agencies of our government keep better records; every time we provide ready access to records that are useful and beneficial to people; every time we come up with records that help people document their identities and verify their entitlements to rights and benefits as citizens, we are contributing to the health of democracy itself. Every time our records enable people to analyze the actions of their government and hold their officials responsible; every time we help people figure out what really happened in our history and assess the meaning of it--I repeat, every time we do those things, we are contributing to the health of democracy itself. And at a time when voter turnout indicates voter apathy, and polls are showing that Americans' faith in their institutions is low, it is more important than ever that Americans be able to count on those of us who, as archivists and records managers, are supposed to be protecting records that document rights and entitlements, actions of the government, and what is significant in American history. The fact is that records do matter enormously in the life of our democratic nation.

NARA's part of the responsibility for recordkeeping is so important that the Congress made the National Archives and Records Administration, which used to be part of another organization, an independent agency, and took steps to insulate the Archivist of the United States from political pressure. The public must be able to trust NARA for independent judgment and objective action to make essential evidence readily accessible. And the public must be able to trust government records and information managers to work within their own agencies to ensure that significant records are saved and kept track of for the appropriate use of the agencies themselves and the public.

With that in mind, let me conclude with a message we received that I think sums up a good deal of what I am trying to say about the importance of records and information management in maintaining a healthy democracy and in resurrecting faith in its institutions. This has to do with our electronic database, the National Archives Information Locator, "NAIL," which I previously described as being an increasingly used way to find out what is in our record holdings. One of NAIL's users said, in a reply message that we received, "Thanks for allowing us to access this most important database. This assures me that we are a government 'of the people, by the people'."

Ladies and gentlemen, that's what your work and mine is really about. That's why it's so important to get a handle on "electronic information management in the millennium," in the word's of your symposium's title. That's why it's so important for us to work together toward producing a "yes" answer to the question that's also part of that title, "are we ready?" We aren't, but with the help of meetings like this of conscientious civil servants who are willing to look ahead and see what's needed, we're going to get there. We must, because as I testified to the Congress last week, "being overwhelmed is not a choice when the record of our country is at stake."

Thanks for having this meeting. Thanks for inviting me to it. Thanks for working with NARA to get where government records management needs to be. And thanks for the attention I know you'll give a little later in the program to my colleague from NARA, Mike Miller, when he talks in more detail about what NARA is doing and what can be done. Best wishes for a fruitful day.

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