About the National Archives

NARA in a Changing World


John W. Carlin
Archivist of the United States


Plenary Address to the Annual Meeting of the National Association of Government Archivists and Records Managers (NAGARA)
Sacramento, California, July 18, 1997


Good morning.

Can it really be possible that I'm making my third plenary address to you? Certainly, a lot has changed since I first spoke to you in Raleigh. After two years now as Archivist of the United States, I can truly appreciate how difficult and rewarding it is to be an archivist. When I took this job, I had no idea how hard it would be, or how many times I would be sued in my capacity as Archivist. In my first couple of months at NARA, I thought, where do the problems end? The Federal Government is downsizing, the Congress is budget-cutting, the records of government keep growing, and the demands for our services keep skyrocketing.

Some days you think you're about to achieve something you've been pushing for very hard, and then it falls through. Then you get sued for not getting what you had been about to achieve accomplished fast enough. And then you can't talk about the effort you've been making because you're restricted pending resolution of the lawsuit.

Nevertheless, even though the archival business may be tougher than I had thought, it also is more important than I thought more important than most people understand. In spite of all the headaches, I love this job. I tell everyone this is the best job I've ever had. Why? Because the work we do in keeping public archives is nothing short of critical for the functioning of democratic institutions. And I'm proud to say that we at the National Archives and Records Administration are making real progress in improving how we carry out that critical mission.

I'm sure many of you heard my deputy, Lew Bellardo, talk yesterday about the process we undertook to bring change to NARA. Today, I want to share with you the progress we've made, how we're doing it in part through partnerships with people like you, at all levels of government, and how urgently our society needs the services that we collectively provide.

In case you didn't hear Lew yesterday, let me first give you some background on the challenges we face to put what I have to say in context. NARA currently holds more than 20 million cubic feet of scheduled and permanent records in our 33 facilities nationwide, and these holdings have grown by no less than one-third just in the past decade. In our regional centers, we've been taking in a net average of one-half-million cubic feet per year. And the expense of just space -- the cost of acquiring and maintaining it -- is eating up nearly half of our annual budget.

On top of all the paper, we're also trying, as you are, to cope with growing quantities of computer-generated records. In the Federal Government, these range from millions of e-mail messages to vast scientific databases, all of which require new methods for appraisal, preservation, and public access. Clearly, electronic records problems are costly to overcome, and require more staff with technical expertise a resource we can never have enough of.

Moreover, the current shrinking of government is only making our job larger. That's because as agencies streamline, programs end, and military bases close, their accumulated records wind up on our doorstep. At the same time, we're trying to carry out legislative mandates to accelerate public release of Kennedy assassination documents, Nixon tapes, and records subject to declassification. Bottom line is we're challenged by a lot of requirements as well as by a lot of records. So where's the progress?

You've read or heard about some of it in the news. NARA has helped researchers get access to much new material this past year in ways that have made headlines. Just as one example, last year's agreement with representatives of the Nixon estate and other parties to accelerate release of President Nixon's secret White House tape recordings is opening significant new collections to researchers. Last November we opened the first portion of the Nixon tapes and the next segment may be opened as early as this fall. Additional segments will be opened incrementally under the terms of the agreement. This material expands the public's opportunity to assess President Nixon's administration on the basis of his own recorded as well as written words and those of his associates.

And that's not all. Newly-released files on the JFK assassination and previously classified documents on code-breaking created by the National Security Organization are among the thousands of documents we've made available recently. We've also put a lot of finding aids and digital copies of documents online for electronic access by scholars, teachers, students, and the public. And we're currently in the midst of an electronic access project that will make more than 100,000 documents in NARA's collections accessible through the Internet within the next two years.

This progress, however, doesn't outweigh the problems we still face. How do we meet the challenges of unfunded mandates, electronic records, and the sheer volume of records in all formats that are being created in today's information-crazy society? I think the answer lies in planning and partnerships. As changes in funding, staffing, technology, and user needs and expectations threaten to overwhelm our institutions, we must be willing to seek help from those around us and to take the difficult step of making changes within ourselves.

At NARA we're trying to do just that. We've recognized that we can't accelerate or even maintain the kinds of services I've just described unless we make major changes in the way we operate. The demands are too great and the money too limited to go on just as we were. Therefore, last year we completed a strategic plan that really is one. And this year we've begun to make the changes called for in it.

Our plan recognizes that NARA has an indispensable mission: to ensure ready access to essential evidence -- evidence that documents the rights of American citizens, the actions of federal officials, and the effects of those actions on our national experience. To succeed in this mission, we must determine what is essential for such documentation, ensure that government creates such evidence, and make it easy for citizens and government officials to use this evidence. We're not there yet, but we're headed in the right direction.

Will planning and partnerships solve all our problems? No. But careful planning and key partnerships can help us improve how we manage in a time of change. Few of our challenges are unique to NARA. Many of you in your archival institutions are also confronting the challenges of having to do more with less, of modernizing your operations, and of figuring out how to take advantage of new records-generating and transmitting technologies rather than being overwhelmed by them. The techniques you develop are of interest to us, and what we learn, I hope, will be useful to you.

Moreover, we at NARA must work collaboratively with state and local government archives because so many Federal programs are state and locally administered. When I was governor of Kansas, fully one-half my annual budget came from Federal programs. Consequently, a significant part of the Federal record is outside Washington in the states and localities, with which we need to collaborate to get our job done. And we're making progress in ways that help both you and us.

Many of you know that, in 1988, NARA and NAGARA set up the Intergovernmental Records Program. Former NAGARA president David Hoober played a big role in developing this program which has been operating successfully through four partnership teams.

One team brought together NARA, several state and municipal archives, and the Research Libraries Group in a project designed to increase the ability of government administrators and the public to locate useful intergovernmental records. A second team brought NARA together with several state archives in the Intergovernmental Cooperative Appraisal Project. One of its biggest successes was the Food Stamp Records Project, which is resulting in the elimination of half a billion pages of unnecessary or duplicative records in storage nationwide. It also contributed to an electronic recordkeeping change in the welfare reform statute of 1996.

The fourth team is a new pilot partnership, headed by NAGARA with NARA participants, to carry out the Criminal Justice Records Project, which has been designated, somewhat mysteriously, as CRIME. Anyway, this spring, representatives of several state and local government programs met with NARA representatives to begin reviewing criminal justice program recordkeeping in hope of producing by this time next year a model records retention schedule for selected records series.

Perhaps our most visible partnerships that currently affect many of you directly are through the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the grant-making arm of NARA. Although NHPRC grants go to governmental and other archives, to colleges and universities, to libraries and historical societies, and to other nonprofit organizations, the Commission also works in direct partnership with State Historical Records Advisory Boards in the states. And recently, the NHPRC-state partnership reached a new stage of development.

In the 1980s, the NHPRC provided grants to help state boards assess records needs within their states. Subsequently, the NHPRC provided grants to help state boards devise strategic plans for meeting those needs. Now, in a revision of the NHPRC's own strategic plan, the commission will give top-level priority to grants to help state boards implement their plans through regrant programs. Through a regrant program, nonprofit organizations within a state receive grant assistance through its state board for developing archival programs and processing collections for access. These "regrants" are financed jointly by federal grants from NHPRC and by funds raised by the state boards. Raising NHPRC's state partnership to a top priority position in the Commission's revised plan did provoke some controversy, but such collaboration is a cost-effective way to meet a range of documentary needs. The Commission agreed on the plan revision at its June meeting, and it should go into effect in fiscal year 1999. And I want to take this opportunity to thank NAGARA representative Howard Lowell and President Kathryn Hammond Baker for their support of the revised plan.

I call all this to your attention because these are concrete examples of partnerships that are helping government archives at all levels. This is concrete, specific progress in meeting efficiently -- and cost effectively -- responsibilities that we share. Amidst all our daily difficulties, the success of these partnerships seems to me really good news. And the examples I have mentioned aren't all.

Through partnerships, we've also made significant progress in the implementation of Executive Order 12958, one of those unfunded mandates. This order requires all Federal agencies to, among other things, review for declassification all records 25 years and older by the year 2000. Records that are not specifically exempted will be automatically declassified at that time.

One of our most significant challenges in meeting this deadline is the declassification of materials in the Presidential libraries. Presidential libraries contain very sensitive information at the highest policy-making level. Information of this type generally cannot be reviewed by NARA staff using agency declassification guidelines. Declassification determinations on this type of information must be made by the agencies concerned. However, the logistics of requiring NARA staff to send all the materials to Washington for review, with some records going to several agencies for review, or having the agencies send reviewers to each of the libraries makes such an approach impractical.

To solve this problem, NARA has been working with a number of agencies to develop a program called the Remote Archives Capture Project. Through this project those documents that cannot be declassified by library personnel using agency guidelines are scanned and brought to Washington for distribution to the appropriate agencies for review. The Central Intelligence Agency has volunteered to be a clearinghouse for the distribution of the scanned images and for consolidation of the results for return to the libraries. And eventually the libraries will receive the declassified documents in electronic form. Already successful pilots have been run at the Johnson and Kennedy Libraries, and we are now planning to expand the project to more libraries and to involve more agencies in the program.

Certainly, expanding opportunities for public access is one of the major thrusts of our Strategic Plan, and continuing on that theme, as I earlier mentioned, we're also in the midst of an electronic access project. I like to think of this project as a partnership between the Congress and NARA to make ready access to essential evidence a reality. WIth the support of Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, NARA received special appropriations in 1994 and 1995 for electronic access pilot projects. These projects included the Gallery of the Open Frontier, a partnership with the University of Nebraska Press to digitize and put up on the Internet hundreds of still pictures of the American West; a survey of citizens' electronic access needs completed in partnership with the National Institute of Standards and Technology; the Virtual Kiosk, an electronic introduction to the services and holdings of NARA, which evolved into our Web site; and the NARA Archival Information Locator, or NAIL, a database for locating audiovisual materials.

Through the continued support of Senator Kerrey, NARA received an additional appropriation of $4.5 million dollars to move us closer to our goal of an on-line, integrated, nationwide information system. We're building on the NAIL prototype, now known as the NARA Archival Information Locator, to make it possible for the public to find and use more easily documents from NARA's holdings. Soon anyone, anywhere, with a computer connected to the Internet will be able to search descriptions of NARA's nationwide holdings and view digital copies of its most popular documents. The first group of digitized items will be on our Web site in August, linked to descriptions of records in NAIL.

The project eventually will result in a virtual card catalog of all NARA holdings nationwide, including those in the presidential libraries and regional facilities. In addition, copies of more than 100,000 of NARA's most popular and significant manuscripts, photographs, sound recordings, maps, drawings, and other documents will be digitized and available for researchers to view online. Users will be able to search the descriptions in the system by title, subject, date, or other keywords.

Among the items that will be digitized are Presidential documents, historic Senate, House, and Joint Committees of Congress documents, maps pertaining to Civil War battles, exploration of the West, and the sale of the Public Domain; architectural drawings of federal courthouses, post offices, and customhouses throughout the United States; exhibits and briefings from district court case files, significant photographs such as Lewis Hine's work for the National Child Labor Committee, and Dorothea Lange's photographs of War Relocation Authority internees; and audio recordings such as William Jennings Bryan's 1896 "Cross of Gold" speech, and an interview with Amelia Earhart on aviation and women in the modern world.

These items are just the beginning, and I think everyone will benefit from this project. Through online access we can bring records that had been available only to people who physically visited a NARA facility to millions of people worldwide in libraries, in schools, and in their homes.

Although we've made a lot of progress in many areas, we still have a long way to go in others. By developing a strategic plan, we've tried to anticipate many trouble spots and minimize their effects. But sometimes even careful planning can get overwhelmed in the heat of the moment when a lawsuit or an external mandate becomes a crisis. Let me share with you a current example of what I mean.

On December 23, 1996, Public Citizen, the American Historical Association, the American Library Association, the Center for National Security Studies, the Organization of American Historians, and two individuals, Scott Armstrong and Eddie Becker, filed suit against me, as Archivist of the United States, and the Executive Office of the President, including its Office of Administration and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. The plaintiffs are asking the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to nullify General Records Schedule 20, which applies to certain electronic records Government-wide. I am being sued because the White House offices named in the suit applied GRS 20 in their records schedules which I approved last December.

The suit challenges my promulgation of General Records Schedule 20, which among other things authorizes federal agencies to delete the live version of electronic mail or word processing docu- ments once the record copy has been copied to paper or microform or copied to an electronic recordkeeping system. Although I believe that there is room for improvement in GRS 20, we are fighting this suit to protect my right to promulgate general records schedules. The plaintiffs have asked the court to declare that GRS 20 is null and void and to enjoin me from taking any steps to implement GRS 20. We in turn have argued that my issuance of revisions to GRS 20 in August 1995 followed careful and comprehensive consideration of comments received in response to NARA's published notice in October 1994 that it intended to make changes to GRS 20 and GRS 23.

More recently, in late June, attorneys for the parties argued the issues in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. The plaintiffs' attorney argued that I have left too much discretion to the agencies and that there should be more individualized appraisal of the agencies' records to ensure programmatic records are not destroyed. We urged the court to uphold the GRS as an appropriate exercise of my authority under the Federal Records Act and the legal standards which apply to agency rulemaking. We also emphasized to the court that the schedule allows the deletion of the electronic version of e-mail messages or word processing files only after the record has been copied to a recordkeeping system, which may be paper, microform or electronic. The court is not expected to issue a decision for several months.

While our attorneys are carrying out an administrative defense for this case, internally we're moving ahead to develop a plan to review GRS 20. Mike Miller, head of our Records Management Program and member of the NAGARA Board, will be leading a small group of electronic records managers from inside and outside the Federal Government in developing a project plan for reviewing GRS 20. This will be a substantive look at the GRS for Mike estimates it will take at least 18 months to two years to complete. And it's consistent with our Strategic Plan, which calls for us to review and update our records guidance for agencies. In addition, legislative changes since I issued GRS 20, such as the Electronic Freedom of Information Act, make such a review all the more necessary. Mike's initial group will determine the scope of the project, how to involve professional organizations and agency records managers, and what pilots, if any, will be conducted. Mike hopes to have more on this plan to share with you by late August.

Unfortunately, this was a situation where our good intentions in the Strategic Plan were not enough to stave off a lawsuit. Just as we were preparing to review our guidance on electronic records as called for in the plan, we were sued over a version of GRS 20 that was issued in 1995, before the plan was developed. We had hoped to get ahead of the curve by identifying and revising outdated or contradictory guidance. Instead, we're expending staff time and money to fight this suit. Nevertheless, I'm confident the plan that Mike is developing will help us improve our guidance and meet the goal in our plan.

In addition, as part of promoting better records management, we're moving more staff into front-end work with federal agencies and the development of their recordkeeping systems. As part of that process, we will be entering into a new dialogue with agencies on what that all means for us and for them. One purpose of that dialogue is to promote better records management at the front end of the records life cycle. In the future, we will be looking for opportunities to talk with agencies about the responsibilities they share with us for records management under the Federal Records Act. What are our respective roles, and what constraints are we facing? What do they need and how can we help them most effectively?

In particular, we will stress the importance to them as well as to us of meeting records management needs in the design of their agency information systems. Already within NARA we have conducted a staff review of the literature on electronic records to increase the understanding of our own staff about the preservation and access issues involved and to help us work together better with agencies and private partners to find and test solutions to issues in these areas.

One government-wide initiative that has implications for records management and public access is the Government Information Locator Service. In December 1995, I recommended to the GILS Board that we conduct an evaluation of GILS, focusing on understanding how well GILS is meeting user information needs. The Board approved the recommendation and five federal agencies, including NARA, funded the study, conducted by Charles McClure of Syracuse University and William Moen of the University of North Texas. The Office of Management and Budget was heavily involved in this effort as well as an advisory group representing eight federal agencies. Moen and McClure completed their study this June and recently released their report, which is available on the Internet.

The report contains a variety of recommendations, two of which are of particular importance to NARA. The first is to refocus GILS primarily as a public information dissemination tool that meets the public's needs for government information. The second is a recommendation not to dilute GILS by trying to make it serve an appraisal and scheduling function. Rather, NARA should use GILS as a tool to identify government records, but should build a separate system to actually inventory and schedule records for records management purposes. We support both of these recommendations.

Overall, despite external mandates and lawsuits, we're making real progress, and much of it we are accomplishing together. And that's important for our work is critical to citizens who rely on records to protect their rights, establish their identities, and claim their entitlements. Additionally, the records we manage undergird not only the legitimacy of governments, and of other kinds of institutions, but also their accountability. The opening of the Nixon tapes, which I talked about earlier, is an example. The assessment by scholars and the public of the information in those tapes will illuminate not just the achievements or difficulties of Nixon's presidency. The assessment will illuminate issues of appropriate conduct for government officials in a democracy.

The Nixon case is a dramatic example of the value of records for evaluating the conduct of public officials. But the point applies to all levels of government, and to many kinds of institutions at the federal state, and local level. Accessible records are essential for responsible governance of all kinds. And accessible records are what archivists provide.

The need for analysis of actions, and thus the need for accessible records, is ongoing because the eventual evaluator of us all is history. An informed electorate needs to make judgments in the broader light of historical perspective. An informed electorate needs a continuing analysis of national, state, and local experience. That requires dependable records. Historians and other analysts don't just make up what happened. Every statement in the history textbooks our children study is at least theoretically traceable to some piece of documentary evidence, something that some scholar cites to substantiate what he or she writes. In our society, today's records are the foundation of tomorrow's history. And in our democracy, today's assessments are the foundation of tomorrow's judgments. As more records become available, we probe more deeply into the meaning of events. What does the experience of Watergate, or Vietnam, or the Cold War really mean to us as a nation, as a people, as a democratic republic?

We all know from following the news that public faith in our institutions is disturbingly low. I believe that we as archivists can help do something about that. I think there is a relationship between public confidence in government and the public's sense that an open, reliable record of government activity is being maintained. I think we play a vital role in maintaining the collective record that sustains that confidence.

I tell you this -- I feel an awesome sense of responsibility every time I enter the rotunda of the National Archives Building in downtown Washington, see hundreds of people lined up there to view the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights, and realize that those Charters of Freedom are in my care. And I feel a sense of pride and encouragement that records in NARA's holdings are enabling investigators, as you've observed in the press, to trace for the benefit of Holocaust victims what happened to the gold and the works of art that the Nazi's looted from them more than a half-century ago. Clearly, the search for Nazi gold is a dramatic example of the value of records, not only for recording historical facts, but in preserving essential evidence.

Such experiences reaffirm for me that it truly is worthwhile to keep at it -- to face the challenges that confront us, to overcome the obstacles that frustrate us, to fight for the resources we need, and to maintain the services on which public faith in open institutions depends. And as we get together in meetings like this, I hope we can take back with us not only new knowledge with which to do a better job, but also renewed recognition that ours is an important job to do. Thanks very much, and best wishes in the efforts you are making.

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