About the National Archives

Who is the Archivist?

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

The AOTUS Blog


State of the Archives
December 2, 2010

 

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David S. Ferriero
Archivist of the United States

Good morning/afternoon.

Greetings to all of you here in College Park and all of you around the country who are joining us virtually. It has been just over a year now that I have been on the job and I think I know a little more than when I addressed you last year—after a month on the job.

It has been an intense year of listening and learning and adjusting to a new city and new work environment. And I have fallen in love with the District and the agency. In the process, I have become a huge fan of the daily horoscopes in the Washington Post. Earlier this month, my favorite, so far was printed:

"Many feel limited by the work they do. You won’t be in this category today, though. Your work expands you. You’ll be excited by what you learn, and you feel privileged to do what you do."

I do, indeed, feel both excited and privileged. Excited every day by the work that we do and privileged to be working with you.

It is a great privilege to be Archivist of the United States—to be the custodian of our most treasured documents and the head of an important government agency with a unique mission:

To preserve the story of America and its people.

It’s also a great privilege to work with such an accomplished, dedicated staff, in 18 states and the District of Columbia. I want to thank all of you for your hard work and passion in fulfilling the mission of the Archives.

I also want to recognize and thank our partner, the Foundation for the National Archives, for its generous support of our many public and education programs and so much more. The success of our innovative outreach programs is made possible by this support.

And a special thank you to our volunteers across the nation who help us in so many different ways. You are an important part of the Archives team.

You all helped to make 2010 a good year.

I’m proud to say I was able to meet many of you this past year in my visits to 21 of our locations, and I plan to see more of you when I visit the other 23 next year.

This year, I visited:

  • The National Personnel Records Center’s three locations in the St. Louis area
  • The Carter Library and the two locations of our Southeast Region in the Atlanta area.
  • The Reagan and Nixon libraries and the Regional Archives in San Bruno in California.
  • The Kennedy library in Boston as well as the Northeast Region’s locations in Pittsfield and New York City.
  • The libraries of Presidents Roosevelt, Johnson, Hoover, and Clinton.
  • The Federal Register and the staff at the Washington National Records Center in Suitland.
  • Rocket Center, West Virginia, and lots of individual offices and units at Archives I and II.
  • And I’ve had regular meetings with the National Archives Assembly, the NARA Afro-American History Society and the Union.
  • And, most recently, I participated in the groundbreaking for the George W. Bush Presidential Library.

In addition to learning the "business" of each site, I wanted to meet you and give you an opportunity to get to know me and share with me your thoughts on what it is like to work for this agency.

You are the people who deal with customers, who process records, who preserve and conserve historic documents, who spend their days reviewing classified records, who respond to customer reference requests, who physically move records from the shelves to where they are needed, and who go the extra mile to dazzle our customers—other agencies and the public. You are also the people who process our paychecks, manage our budget, order our supplies, let our contracts, keep our facilities safe and operational, and handle the myriad of other tasks needed to carry out our mission.

My time with you has been the most important element of my education in the past year. I thank you for your honesty and your willingness to tell it like it is.

I got an earful. In fact, I got two earsful.

I heard that you like your work and take pride in it—and in being on the staff of an institution like the National Archives.

However, I heard some other things that concern me.

Many of you feel that you have no voice—that no one listens. In some cases, you don’t always get recognized for the important role your piece of the process brings to the overall mission of the unit and Agency.

You feel there’s no way to advance in your jobs at the Archives—that there are no career ladder. As someone who started his life as a shelver this is of particular concern to me.

You feel remote, apart from what goes on in the rest of the agency, not really a part of the National Archives. You are frustrated by having to use outdated computer hardware and software, by the slowness and cumbersomeness of the procurement process. And, a fair number of you don’t have Internet access at all.

Your frustrations came through loudly and clearly—just as they did in the Employee Viewpoint Survey released earlier this year — then in the rankings of "Best Places to Work in the Federal Government," where NARA tied for last in the rankings. Thanks to all of you who participated in the survey. The upside is that we did set a new record for participation!

Last place is not acceptable and I intend to devote my energies to making this THE BEST PLACE to work in the Federal Government.

It became clear to me as I met with you and listened to our various stakeholders that the National Archives had an opportunity presented to us by the President’s Open Government Initiative to transform ourselves. Transform ourselves by rethinking what we do, how we do it, how we treat each other, and how we can provide better services to our customers. To instill the Open Government principles of participation, collaboration, and transparency in our value system.

As you know, I appointed a small Task Force on Agency Transformation this summer to come up with a plan to help the National Archives better meet the needs of our customers—and you, the staff.

The Task Force delivered their report in September—a plan that calls for a major transformation of this agency. Not just a reorganization, but new ways of doing things, thinking about things, and delivering services. The full report is available on NARA@work, and highlights are printed in the November issue of Declarations.

* * *

The plan’s six transformations map directly to the messages you delivered to me when we met:

  • We will work as one NARA. No matter where you are or what you do, you will have a stake in the success of the entire agency, and everyone else will have stake in what you do.

  • We will be out in front and embrace the primacy of electronic information. We’ve been behind in this, and we still are. You need the most up-to-date IT tools and skills to perform your jobs in the digital age. As the agency responsible for advising the Federal Government and the White House on the records implications of their IT initiatives, we need to be out in front, not lagging behind. We have, for instance, a great opportunity to develop innovative archival practices before records are even created.

  • We will foster a culture of leadership. We want you to take the lead in what you do. You have had a taste of it in your participation in a variety of IdeaScale activities asking for your solutions to our problems. You all have ideas for how we can do things better. We need to encourage the sharing of these ideas and open our ears and eyes to new ways of doing our work. You have already demonstrated that leadership can come from all levels of the staff.

  • We will transform our agency into a "great place to work." You, are our most important resource. We want to provide the best setting in which you will do your work, support you with the training and technology needed to do your work, provide career ladders for advancement, and recognize you for your contributions.

  • We will create structures and processes so the staff can more effectively meet customer needs. We’ll flatten the organization and let front-line staff make decisions about satisfying customers’ needs. We’ll measure success by evaluating outcomes, not output.

  • We will open our organizational boundaries to learn from others. We’ll remove internal barriers to sharing information among ourselves and make it "standard operating procedure." And we can learn a lot from volunteers, stakeholders, citizen archivists — and ordinary customers and visitors.

We now have a Transformation Launch Team hard at work on Organizational Values, Actions Items—Quick Wins, and fleshing out the New Organization. The Team members will be looking to you for help. I have given them a mid-January deadline because I do not want to lose any momentum the plan has created.

If you have not done so already, I urge you to subscribe to the Transformation web site blog so you can stay informed and take an active role in this work.

* * *

And even as we transform ourselves, we will need to deal with fiscal and political realities.

In the coming years, we will have to do our job with fewer resources. Congress and the President are seeking to balance the budget and reduce discretionary spending. On Monday we notified you of the President’s proposed two-year salary freeze. The fiscal situation means that we will likely have to make difficult choices among our programs and our services to customers.

We looked to you for suggestions for reductions in our budget, and I want to thank all of you who participated in our Budget Brainstorming IdeaScale this summer. There were more than 20,000 votes, and all of your comments were considered. The budget reductions we decide on will be made public when the President submits his proposed fiscal year 2012 budget to Congress in February.

Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center revealed that Americans continue to have a low opinion of government. They distrust government—they’re unhappy. There’s a lot of discontent with Congress and elected officials and all the political in-fighting. Fewer people believe that government has all the solutions to our problems.

Here at the Archives, we must be a part of the government that works—the part the public does trust and that does have solutions to their problems and answers to their questions.

And we do.

Let me cite some examples from recent years.

Last year, Kenneth Sarna was diagnosed with cancer about the time his Social Security payments stopped because he could not prove he was a U.S. citizen. Immigration officials could not help. So he turned to our Pacific Region office in Riverside, California. We quickly found a naturalization petition, but it wasn’t good enough for Social Security. NARA stepped in and explained that Kenneth didn’t have his own certificate because he became a citizen when his father was naturalized—he had derivative citizenship. The Social Security payments resumed.

A man walked into our Waltham facility 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 has an oversight or had the recommendation not been approved. Staff in St. Louis made this case a priority and found additional documentation. Through their 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 staff at Waltham, 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. Anchorage staff 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!

An elderly Army veteran from North Carolina had been trying for a number of years to get his separation document so he could receive medical benefits. At the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, an expert technician on a Records Reconstruction Team reviewed the request and was unable to find any additional information to assist the veteran. His records are believed to have been destroyed in the 1973 fire. So she arranged to interview the veteran over the phone. He gave her enough information for her to search Army organizational records. She did and eventually was able to reconstruct the veteran's service record.

These are great examples of how the National Archives helps people—how we’re part of the solution.

That veteran from North Carolina was just one of 100,000 cases handled last year by the Records Reconstruction Teams as they reconstruct military files damaged or destroyed in the 1973 fire. These teams employ a variety of strategies so that a document certifying the veteran's service can be issued. Sometimes, organizational records are used, and other times the staff works with the Veterans Administration and state agencies to find documents that help them reconstruct a veteran’s file.

The demand for these records increased during the fiscal year—requiring NPRC to add two additional correspondence teams. Overall, our St. Louis staff answered 1.42 million written reference requests in the last fiscal year—95 percent of NARA’s total written requests.

That’s just an example of the kind of work we do at NARA—in all units and in all locations. You should be very proud of these accomplishments.

* * *

Looking back on 2010, it has been a good year—not only did we take our first steps toward transformation, we also accomplished quite a bit.

  • We developed and are implementing an Open Government Plan in concert with the President’s directive for more participation, collaboration, and transparency in government.

    This is not very hard for us. After all, we’re in the access business. We’ve always believed that citizens have the right to see, examine, and learn from the records we preserve on their behalf.

  • The National Archives is off to a great start in becoming a leader in social media in Government.

  • We now have 24 Facebook pages for every niche interest. The flagship National Archives Facebook page grows by 30 or more fans a day and now has nearly 10,000 of them.

  • We have eight blogs, including my own, that draw an audience of 7,000 every week. We have a Wiki-hub for researchers. More than 1,200 of our historical videos are available on YouTube—they’ve been viewed more than 300,000 times since the site was launched and we’re now up to 1,500 a day.

  • Readers can now see our flagship publication, Prologue, through their mobile phone or iPads. And 7,000 of our photos available through Flickr have been viewed nearly two million times.

  • This month, we will roll out the new Online Public Access system to the general public, a significant first step in providing a single search engine to all of our online holdings, giving the public a simpler way to search and view the Government’s permanent records.

  • The Electronic Records Archives now has almost 100 terabytes of information, mostly from the Bush 43 Administration, and a significant increase is expected next year.

  • A Holdings Protection Team was established to prevent losses of valuable records, and the senior staff and I are reviewing options to enhance security even more. Theft of records, especially by staff members, tarnishes the reputation of all of us on the staff who do all we can to preserve and protect the records. We will be rolling out new screening procedures in the weeks ahead and I want you to know how seriously I take this issue. This, in fact, is the first place I have worked where my own briefcase was not checked every time I left the building.

  • The Office of Inspector General has kept us on the straight and narrow, providing us with crucial assessments and recommendations for improving how we conduct our business. The Archival Recovery Team monitors the Internet, trade show, and other sales venues to recover stolen property. I encourage you to keep up with their FaceBook page. And if you see something suspicious report it.

  • We continued to strengthen our leadership role in Government classification and declassification activities and in providing the widest possible access to Government records:

  • Our National Declassification Center is beginning to eliminate the backlog of 400 million pages of classified documents by developing methods to streamline the processing and get these records declassified and on the shelves for researchers as quickly as possible.

  • The Information Security Oversight Office began enforcing several new Presidential orders that reform the ways that classified or sensitive information is managed. This included the establishment of the Controlled Unclassified Information Office within ISOO.

  • Our work to digitize traditional records made great progress this year. We are digitizing the entire 1940 Census in preparation for its April 2012 opening.

    At the same time, we continue to work with private partners and volunteers who have already digitized millions of pages of records to make them available in ways unimaginable a few short years ago. Among the latest records now available or becoming available are those relating to the Civil War, the Holocaust, and the Vietnam War.

  • We recently accepted into our holdings one of the most important and notorious documents of the 20th century — the Nuremberg Laws, signed by Hitler himself. They legalized the persecution of the Jews in Germany, eventually leading to the Holocaust.

  • We launched Federal Register 2.0 as the Government’s daily newspaper web site. Now, the Register reaches out to citizens and gives them the tools that 21st century readers have come to expect. This web site is an important part of how we’re responding to the President’s Open Government call.

  • The Agency won the White House’s "Lean, Clean, and Green" award for our College Park facility, where we have reduced annual energy usage by 24 billion BTUs, enough energy to hear 300,000 homes each year. We’ve also trimmed 2,000 tons of carbon emissions, enough to fuel 500 cars for a year. And we plan to improve our footprint even more in the years ahead.

  • Our records management staff took the first steps toward bringing together records managers and IT staff in agencies across government to ensure that records now at risk in agencies and departments are properly managed. We also issued records management guidance on social media — further demonstrating NARA’s leadership in I-T issues facing the Government today.

  • This year, we opened an ambitious two-part exhibit, "Discovering the Civil War," to commemorate its 150th anniversary. It draws on the vast records we have of the Civil War to open a fresh perspective even after 150 years of discussion and debate. This intriguing exhibit is the first one built by NARA to feature multiple interactive experiences.

  • And two exhibits in the regions—"Deadly Medicine" in Kansas City and "Documented Rights" in Atlanta—set attendance records for the regional facilities.

  • Our sixth annual Genealogy Fair in Washington drew a record 2,500 visitors in two days. Meanwhile, the regional archives began accessioning two prominent and long-anticipated personal data series dealing with case files on aliens and railroad retirees.

  • We launched on the Internet another tool for teachers to use to engage students in the study of history, DocsTeach, with 3,000 of records in the current product.

  • We completed the move of non-classified records from President Nixon’s Administration to the Nixon Library in California.

  • We are processing records at Presidential libraries much faster: Up 49 percent at Reagan, 62 percent at Bush I, and 178 percent at Clinton.

  • We broke ground for the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas and the new building for the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis.

  • We recognized those individuals who mine our records and find things we didn’t know were there as "Citizen Archivists."

  • We’re launching a new, cleaner, easier-to-navigate version of our web site, Archives.gov.

  • We became partners with the University of Virginia Press to develop a full-featured web site hosted by us with all the papers of the six most prominent Founding Fathers. This will provide access to millions of pages of their writings.

  • The Clinton Library produced and posted on the Internet 170,000 pages of records pertaining to Elena Kagan upon her nomination to the Supreme Court.

  • At the Federal Records Centers, revenue exceeded expenses this past year by $5 million, the largest amount in their 11-year history. This income will help NARA accumulate capital to pay the huge costs for facility upgrades and moves at St Louis and Suitland.

  • We continue to play an international role. I spoke to archival groups in Oslo, Norway; Sofia, Bulgaria; and Ottawa, Canada. We hosted visitors from nearly two dozen countries. Through the State Department, we are assisting South Africa with the digitization of Nelson Mandela’s personal papers.

  • And, finally, we have wireless in A1 and A2! Thanks to the Foundation for the National Archives for their support of this project.

* * *

Some of you are probably now asking: If we were successful in so many areas last year, why do we need a transformation? Isn’t this just putting people in new boxes on a new chart?

The answer is simply: We cannot afford to not do it.

When the employees don’t think highly of their employer, their work suffers. We cannot afford to let this happen, given our unique role in government and the trust that the American people place in us. Satisfied employees beget satisfied customers.

That means empowering individuals to make front-line, on-the-ground decisions in their areas of responsibility when dealing with projects or customers.

It also means letting ideas bubble up from the staff instead of being handed down from on high.

And it means creating a work environment and organization of interdependency—one that makes each of us feel we have a stake in the success of the entire agency, and everyone else has a stake in our own personal success.

My email to you yesterday asked for your participation in developing the Agency’s organizational values. I urge you to join the conversation so that these values truly reflect the aspirations of the staff. What kind of workplace do you want to work in? This is your opportunity to have your voice heard.

Creating a new culture won’t happen overnight, but there is an urgency that demands that we move quickly. We must create a new National Archives that will flourish and be an important part of our democracy in the 21st century and I look forward to working with every single one of you to make that happen.

Thanks to all of you.

And, now, let’s recognize some of the accomplishments of our colleagues with the Archivist’s Award Ceremony.

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