About the National Archives

Prepared remarks of Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA "Cultural Institutions in a Digital Age: Are We Losing Our Memory?"

October 20, 2010

Who is the Archivist?

David S. Ferriero
David S. Ferriero The Archivist of the United States is the head of our agency, appointed by the President of the United States.

The AOTUS Blog


What's an Archivist?

Thank you for that kind introduction, and thank you for inviting me to speak to you today.

I am particularly pleased to brag about the terrific relationship that the National Archives enjoys with the Philadelphia Art Museum.  Our Mid-Atlantic staff has worked closely for many years with the Museum’s staff in a number of education and public programming initiatives, including National History Day and last year’s John Brown Commemoration. 

I am also pleased that the National Historic Preservation and Records Commission, which I chair, has been able to support the Museum’s records management program.  But mostly I am pleased to be here to say thanks to your own Martha Morris for convincing me to come to Duke and interview for the job of University Librarian!

To set the stage let me start by briefly explaining the role of the National Archives and Records Administration. 

We are the nation’s records keeper.  44 facilities from Anchorage, Alaska to Atlanta, Georgia, including the 13 Presidential Libraries. 3500 staff members.  10 billion pieces of paper.  40 million photographs.  Miles of video and film. And terabytes of electronic information.  And, of course, the Charters of Freedom, amazingly preserved since their creation. So that is a high level view of who we are and what we do.

Peter Lange, the provost of Duke University, also on the Search Committee that lured me from MIT, recently said:

“We live in the age of the archive.  Our ability to capture text, video, audio, and electronic communications is unprecedented.  This new power has also raised questions about security, privacy, relevance, access, selection, cost, and long-term preservation.  In the digital environment, everything is saved yet little is preserved.”

Implicit in this description are several ideas about the changing nature of information, how it is distributed, and how it is persistent

And it is in this transition to a digital age that calls the questions:

  • What can be done about losing our memory? 

  • And what is the right role for archives at all levels of government as well as for libraries, universities, and other cultural institutions.

* * *

The concern about memory loss regarding our historical record is not new.  As the Continental Congress was wrapping up its work here in Philadelphia, Jeremiah Clark, delegate from New York, raised the question of destroying the Journals of the Congress, “lest the fall into the wrong hands.”

And it was not until Franklin Roosevelt signed the legislation creating the National Archives that this country got serious about ensuring that the records of the country were managed appropriately.

Robert Digges Wimberly Connor was teaching history at Chapel Hill when Roosevelt tapped him to serve as the first Archivist of the United States.  In gathering the records to include in the new Archives, Connor and his staff discovered that records around the government had not been well-preserved.  They had been stored in depositories fraught with hazards.  They were exposed to dirt, rain, sunlight, theft and fire.  Some were infested with silverfish, cockroaches, rats, mice, and other vermin.

Connor also reported:  “In another depository crowded with archives of the Government, the most prominent object to one entering the room was the skull of a dead cat protruding from under a pile of valuable records.  If a cat with nine lives to risk in the cause of history could not survive the conditions of research in the depositories of our national archives, surely the poor historian with only one life to give to his country may be excused if he declines to take the risk.”

I’m relieved to report that I didn’t find any dead cats when I took over!  But I did find a Government in need of direction around their records as the means of creation and dissemination and retention transition from paper to electronic.

* * *

So, let’s start with a look at the changing nature of information.  Back in 1997, David Shenk published a book about information overload called Data Smog, which has entered the parlance as a short-hand description of the sheer volume of information each of us deals with every day. 

Shenk wrote that in 1971 the average American was targeted by at least 560 daily advertising messages. Twenty years later, that number had risen six fold, to 3,000 messages per day. But this was written in 1991.  Before the rise of E-mail, Twitter, IMs, Facebook, YouTube and so on.

A few years ago, the Yankelovich market research firm estimated that the number was up to 5,000 messages a day. That’s almost two million per year.

My favorite studies come from the University of California at Berkeley which has, since 2000, been publishing a number of “How Much Information?” studies.  In 1999, for instance, the world produced between 2 and 3 exabytes of new information.  An exabye is 10 to the 18th bytes and a byte is one character of text.  Or, put another way, an exabyte represents all of the hard drives in home computers in Minnesota, which has a population of 5.1 million.   And less than 1% (.003) of that information was printed information. 

The latest How Much Information study, released in January of this year, looks at information consumption by Americans in 2008.  Consumption totaled 3.6 zettabytes and almost 11,000 trillion words or 100,500 words and 36 gigabytes of information for an average person on an average day.  (One zettabyte is 10 to the 21st and one gigabyte is 10 to the 9th)

Contrast our experience with that of our parents and grandparents, who were limited by access to information—the morning and evening newspapers, newsreels, the nightly radio newscast, the mail—and by the speed of communication. 

While none of us, I would guess, want to go back a century and live without the extraordinary tools and communications delivery systems—off the grid as they say—we must acknowledge that the data smog requires some filtration. 

The best filter is going to be our own individual capacity to turn off and tune out occasionally, but we also need information filters such as search engines, libraries, museums, and archives.  

Not only does information become more pervasive through multiple distribution systems, but—thanks to us—it becomes more persistent.  That is to say, over the past century and a half, historians and archivists have done an excellent job in demonstrating the value of historical records of all sorts.

* * *

The age of the archive corresponds with the rise in America of “high” culture. In his seminal book Highbrow/Lowbrow, Lawrence Levine traces the emergences of cultural institutions—first in communities, and later on the national level—designed to collect and preserve art and artifacts.  The great museums and libraries and historical societies—and yes, archives—developed as the country grew and matured.  Levine argues that one purpose of these institutions was to save knowledge and information for its own sake, its intrinsic value. 

Government followed suit and acknowledged the need to capture and retain knowledge and information, and more recently corporations and businesses began to better understand, value, and exploit historical information.   

We have created the age of the archives—the ways and means to save more stuff and for longer periods of time. And as a society, we have become very adept at it.

Virtually every business and corporation has some records management system, and archives are ubiquitous at all levels—from colleges and universities to governments large and small to NGOs of all stripes.  Shown the value of something as simple as a baseball card or comic book, mothers no longer toss out the paper ephemera of childhood, but encase it in plastic and stash it the safety deposit box. 

Information has become extremely persistent at all levels.   Everything is saved yet little is preserved.

That presents these basic challenges for archives:

How do we deal with the scale of number of records created?

What is a record in this day and age, and how do we handle the kinds of records that we now create?

And finally, is saving it all enough? And what are the purposes of an archives?

These are not new questions. They were asked a century ago when historians were advocating for a national archives——and they are still being asked today.

* * *

Once upon a time, in the antediluvian days before the Internet, historical records primarily were written on paper.  Anyone with a filing cabinet or desk drawer knows just how quickly paper takes up space. 

For the National Archives, space—or the lack of it—was the first frontier. It became apparent during the construction of our headquarters building in downtown Washington, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed to filling in with stacks what was to be an inner courtyard. Today, a kind of warren exists in the stacks, half-floors and secret passageways.

At the same time, engineers realized that another solution would be to make the paper itself smaller.  On microfilm.  Archives and libraries began using microfilm in the mid-20th century as a preservation strategy and as a space-saving measure.

Compression is obviously a great space-saving idea.  Microfilm also allowed for access to fragile materials and is a stable archival form.  Preservation-standard film has an estimated life of about 500 years under appropriate storage conditions.  It is an analog version of an analog original, requiring no software to decode the data.  One only needs magnification.

Problem solved?  Raise your hands if you prefer sitting at a microfilm reader over sitting in front of a computer screen.  The disadvantages of microfilm are also fairly obvious.  One needs magnification, usually on a difficult-to-use machine, requiring careful winding and rewinding.  And often the quality is poor, especially in terms of photographs and color.

Nicholson Baker raised that point in his book Double Fold, which quite rightly took on the shame of microfilming newspapers while discarding the originals, and the resultant loss of information.  Furthermore, like all analog media formats, microfilm is lacking in digital’s ability to be indexed and searched easily.

* * *

If the future of microfilm is in some dispute, then what can be said about some truly obsolete technologies.  How many archives have their own hardware morgues or Computer Museums, where machines are kept on hand that are able to read floppies in 8-inch, 51⁄4 -inch or  31⁄2 -inch formats? 

At the modern National Archives facility in College Park, Maryland, we have our own museum in the Department of Special Media Preservation.  Here you’ll find a recording device that uses coils of thin steel wire instead of tape.  There are 70,000 18-inch glass discs –each with two hours of enemy radio broadcasts from World War II.  They play on a Memovox.  There are push-pull movie sound-tracks –1800 reels.    There are a quarter million optical discs—the cutting edge technology of the 1980s—that depend on software and hardware no longer on the market.  All of these technologies are less than a century old, and yet, the materials may be gone.

While the quantity of information saved has increased dramatically over the centuries, the durability of media has decreasedexponentially.  That is to say, the clay tablets from ancient Sumeria can still be seen today, medieval manuscripts on animal parchment are perfectly readable, and paper correspondence from the Renaissance is still in good condition. 

But the floppies of our recent past are all but useless.  What is the shelf-life of an 8-track tape?  Can anybody here remember WordPerfect?  FoxPro? Netscape Navigator?  Where have you gone, MS-DOS?

But, as Alexander Stille points out in his book The Future of the Past: “Books printed on modern acidic paper are turning to dust.  Black-and-white photographs may last a couple of centuries, while most color photographs become unstable within thirty or forty years.  Videotapes deteriorate much more quickly than does traditional movie film.  And the latest generation of digital storage tape is considered to be safe for about ten years, after which it should be copied to avoid loss of data.”

* * *

The challenges of paper records and those on obsolete media pale in comparison with the whole question of electronic records.  They answer the question of “space” by compressing data into ones and zeros, but at the same time—and perhaps as a consequence—electronic records are even more likely to be saved than paper records.  They answer the question of technological obsolescence by being hardware independent, but at the same time, electronic records are just as likely to be lost if maintained solely in their proprietary formats.

The National Archives long ago recognized the need to develop a means of dealing with the data smog.  Perhaps the largest undertaking in the history of the National Archives is the creation of the Electronic Records Archives—or ERA. 

ERA was established in partnership with the private sector and developed using the best available research from around the world. It is intended to preserve and provide access to any type of electronic record created by a federal agency.  It is being built to handle any changes in software and remain a collaborative laboratory with the public to provide access to electronic records.

Progress has been slow, but steady.  Records are now being ingested into the system. We now have around 100 terabytes of electronic records in ERA – 82 terabytes from the George W. Bush White House alone. It is scheduled to be fully operational in 2011.

We must be mindful of the special needs of electronic records, just as for paper and special media, which require both access and protection, the preservation and conservation routines that care for the physical object to extend its life, usually through providing an appropriate storage environment.  And we must be on guard against unintended consequences brought about by conversion from one medium to another.

And we must be prepared for the new ways in which government and citizens interact and for the new kinds of records created through what we call social media.

* * *

The National Archives plans to be a leader in government in the use of social media and we have embarked on it in a big way. 

Web 2.0 is also altering how people interact with the National Archives. During our 75th anniversary year, we launched our YouTube page and made our first Tweet. Within a month, one of our videos had gone viral and received more than 15,000 views in a single day. Within the nine months our films were viewed more than 100,000 times. Less than four months later that number doubled.

Our YouTube channel is part of a suite of social media projects launched at the National Archives spanning the blogosphere, wikis, Twitter, Flickr and Facebook. We maintain seven blogs to inform customers, whether it’s the latest developments in genealogical research, historical anecdotes, information from the regional archives, or the latest from the Archivist himself.

A year ago we had two Facebook pages. Now we have more than 20. Our primary Facebook page has nearly 8,000 fans from 17 countries, and adds almost a hundred fans a week. Since 2009 when we sent our first tweet, we’re now heavily involved in the Twittersphere with more than 10,000 followers across seven Twitter feeds.

These projects are only the beginning, however, especially as we focus on mobile technologies. Our flagship publication, Prologue, now has a growing number of subscribers on the iPad, iPhone, and Droid. We are overhauling our website, Archives.gov, to be mobile-friendly, and we are geo-tagging our photos when possible. The Foundation for the National Archives is creating GPS missions and utilizing Twitter feeds in its newest exhibit, Part II of “Discovering the Civil War.”

Generation Y—who just this year blew past the Baby Boomers in terms of overall population share—uses this stuff the way our generation relied on the daily mail and the newspaper.  The whole commerce of information has changed permanently.  It took radio 38 years to reach an audience of 50 million; television reached the saturation point in 13 years; the Internet in 4 years; and the iPod in 3 years.  In less than 9 months, Facebook added 100 million users. 

Speaking of Facebook, the new movie, “The Social Network,” provides a good look at how quickly Facebook was developed and grown into the network it is today and how quickly the social media landscape can change. In our modern, digital age, of course, this is ancient history, since it harkens back to 2004.

Our buildings in both College Park and downtown Washington are being wired for wi-fi as we speak. Every day, the National Archives is more wired for a wireless world.  One day soon, I predict, we will have the first Social Media Archivist, whose job it is to figure out how to tame the dragons we have set free.

* * *

We have a lot of federal records at the National Archives, and I suspect that despite our best efforts the number will continue to increase exponentially.  Certainly if you look at the national network of archives—the records at the federal, state, local and academic levels—you would count well into the billions.  Electronic records are only going to blow the top off.

Making it easy for researchers, students, and the general public to learn about and make use of the billions of items in our holdings is clearly a challenge.

Free and open access to the records of government will always be the work of this agency. Exhibits, classes, lectures, and digitization activities all contribute to our mission of encouraging the use of the records of government and helping everyday Americans better connect with their government. 

Let me share a couple of stories with you about ordinary yet extraordinary moments in the Archives:

A man walked into a regional center with a letter dated May 1946, recommending his dad for the Bronze Star.  The medal had never been awarded, and the son wondered whether this was an oversight or had the recommendation not been approved?  Staff at the St. Louis Military Personnel Records Center made this case a priority and found additional documentation.  Through our efforts, it was determined that he was entitled to the Bronze Star.  Just two days after his 100th birthday, and 63 years after the recommendation was written, in a ceremony arranged by the National Archives regional office, local Army officials presented Walter Pierce with the Bronze Star. 

 In Alaska, the granddaughter of an 88-year-old Anchorage resident visited to obtain a certified copy of his 1958 divorce decree.  Prior to Alaska statehood in 1959, the U.S. District Court handled divorce cases, so the file was in federal hands.  We quickly found the final decree, and “made her day.”   Her grandfather in the nursing home was waiting for proof of his divorce … so he could remarry.

All over the country, archives are reuniting citizens with their rights and helping historians research and tell the American story.  Through the work of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, we’ve helped fund projects involving non-federal records.

Perhaps the commission’s biggest and most significant work is its role in tracking down, preserving, transcribing and making accessible the papers of six of our Founding Fathers: Adams, Franklin, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, and Washington. By 2013, all the papers will be on a searchable web site on the Internet.

We are also involved in several other activities to increase public access:

The Office of Government Information Services, which opened its doors about a year ago, was established within the Archives to monitor government-wide activity under the Freedom of Information Act. 

Its mission: Improving the FOIA process and resolving disputes between federal agencies and FOIA requesters.  In the last year, FOIA shined a light on oil drilling, falsified military valor claims, and Government credit card misuses, among other examples.

On December 29 of last year, President Obama established the National Declassification Center within the Archives. Its job is to streamline the declassification process throughout government, where there are today some 2,000 different security classification guides at work.

And it must finish processing more than 400 million pages of records awaiting declassification and public access by December 31, 2013.  To date some 800,000 pages have been reviewed.

The Information Security Oversight Office, also located within the Archives, oversees the classification programs of government and industry—ensuring public access where appropriate but safeguarding national security information.  Not all sensitive information is classified, however, and this office is leading the effort to reform the system for managing “sensitive but unclassified” or “controlled unclassified information.”

And at the end of July we launched Federal Register 2.0. The Federal Register is often called the Government’s daily newspaper since it provides a public record of actions and proposed actions of all the departments and agencies in the Executive Branch. 

The new, user-friendly version of the print edition functions much like a newspaper web page.  It makes it easier for all of our citizens to find what they need, comment on proposed rules, and share materials relevant to their interests. 

Like a newspaper it has individual sections for Money, Environment, World, Science and Technology, Business and Industry, and Health and Public Welfare.  It also has a constantly updated Calendar of Events that lists public meetings about proposed government actions.

And it tracks the openings and closing of comment periods on proposed rules and regulations and the effective dates of new rules.  Each document that asks for public comments features a highly visible button for the public to do so.  And it is all written in language which can be understood by the general public!

All of what I’ve spoken about so far is tied into a single effort: the Open Government Initiative.  In December 2009, the Obama Administration issued guidance to strengthen the relationship between the Federal government and the American people through more transparency, participation, and collaboration.

The backbone of the Open Government Initiative is effective records management, but today there is a disconnect between those responsible for records in an agency and the information technology folks in the same agency.

Last year, we surveyed all 274 agencies in a government-wide self assessment, and the results were not encouraging. We found that four out of five agencies are at either a high or moderate risk of improper destruction of records.

Agencies need to include records management experts in the design and development of information systems. It will save agencies time and money in searching, storing, and preserving information for Government use and for future generations

We have also developed our own Open Government plan. At the heart of the plan is a flagship initiative to develop web and data services that are worthy of the American people.

I am excited about this, for I see openness as one of the more important ways the federal government can ensure the basic rights of citizens in a democracy.  You can find out more about it on our website at www.archives.gov/open.

I am reminded of those rights every day.  The Charters of Freedom—just around the corner from my office in the National Archives—are a bold reminder of the ideals of the nation, and the ideals of a national archives.

And I am reminded daily of what is at risk. 

Are we losing our memory? 

If the past teaches us anything, it is that challenges persist.  A century ago, archivists and historians were crying out for the establishment of a National Archives, for we were losing our national memory. 

Fifty years ago, the Archivist of the United States was shaking his head in disbelief over the rampant expansion of federal record-making, putting our national memory at risk. 

Twenty-five years ago, we were in danger of losing it again. According to the Report of the Committee on the Records of Government, a bipartisan federal committee working with the scholars, “The United States is in danger of losing its memory.”  The federal government and state and local governments have huge quantities of paper records at risk.  Historically valuable electronic records compound the problem. 

So says the Committee Report issued in 1985.  Before the Web really took off.  Before the skyrocketing rise of social media.

Now, I am here to say that the problem has finally gotten serious. WE face the challenge of preserving not only what are recognized today as traditional or electronic records, but the challenge of determining just what IS a record in the world of social media.

There are huge risks and challenges associated with what archives are doing.  Particularly in the digital environment, where everything is saved yet little is preserved.  Clearly we need to save better and preserve more—and not the other way around.

The National Archives can play an important role in the evolution of the digital archives environment, with ERA as a cog around which much additional research and experimentation can grow, including R&D from the academic community. 

But we need the best minds at colleges and universities and the private sector working in concert to develop new ways of not simply saving the records, but preserving them and figuring out ways to make sure they are accessible. 

Without such judgment and collaboration, we are in danger of losing our memory–—again.

Thank you.

About the National Archives >

The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
1-86-NARA-NARA or 1-866-272-6272

.