About the National Archives

Prepared Remarks of Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero at the annual Conference of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency in Lancaster, Pa.

May 5, 2010

The Archivist was introduced by Paul Brachfeld, Inspector General of the National Archives and Records Administration.

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, Paul!

I’m pleased to be here today to explain what the National Archives is and what it does—and what we hope to do.

We are the nation’s record keeper. We preserve—and make accessible to the public—vast volumes of records dating back to the beginnings of our nation.

In addition to preserving and making accessible records in our holdings, we also help federal agencies and departments manage the records they’re creating and using today.

So we think records are important. Here’s why:

Records document the individual rights and entitlements of our citizens. They record the actions of our government and the individuals who run it. And they hold the history of the national experience, the triumphs as well as the darker chapters.

Preserving and managing these records well is important and is the backbone to President Obama’s Open Government Initiative. I want to tell you about our own Open Government Plan and give you some background on the Archives and what we do.

But first, I’d like to tell you a bit about who I am and where I think the National Archives, with its important and unique mission, needs to go.

* * *

So here I am now at the National Archives, which just observed its 75th anniversary.

The National Archives was created in 1934 in legislation signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who championed the agency and fancied himself a bit of an archivist. He had a big hand in how our headquarters building on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington was built and staffed—even before he had named the first Archivist!

His signature on the legislation came after a century of calls and proposals for some sort of national archives to house the important records of the nation. Before that, records were kept in very haphazard and careless fashion on shelves and in drawers and boxes throughout the government.

Today, the National Archives has 3,000 employees in17 states and the District of Columbia, including our headquarters building in Washington, DC, our facilities in College Park and Suitland, Maryland, 14 regional archives, 17 federal records centers, 13 Presidential libraries, and the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis.

We preserve the records that have permanent value; that’s about 2 to 3 percent of all the records created in conducting the public’s business.

In all these locations, we have accumulated as permanent records more than 10 billion pages of textual documents; 7.2 million maps, charts, and architectural drawings; more than 20 million still photographs; billions of machine-readable data sets; and more than 365,000 reels of film and 110,000 videotapes.

And, in the fastest growing category, we have more than 96 terabytes of electronic records; 77 terabytes are from the George W. Bush White House alone, so you can see the trendline here.

In addition, our Federal Records Centers are custodians for 63 billion pages of records from Federal agencies that the agencies and departments still use and draw from on a regular basis.

* * *

At the same time, we help agencies manage their records to meet their business needs and to ensure that the records of historical value are in good order when they are transferred to us.

Without good records management, it is impossible for the public to know and understand what the government is doing and impossible for the present to inform the future. And it’s difficult, if not impossible, for Inspectors General to do their job without good records management.

Heads of agencies and senior leaders across the Federal Government need to understand that the records and information they and their organizations are creating—as I speak—are national assets that must be effectively managed and secured.

For starters, it is required by law in the Federal Records Act. But effective records management — adequate and proper documentation of the Federal Government’s activities and transactions — is good government and a necessary condition of an Open Government.

It’s important for Federal agencies themselves to preserve their records economically and effectively long enough and in a usable format to meet various business needs. And the agencies, along with the Archives, must ensure that records of archival value are preserved and made available for future generations.

The statutory authority to grant Federal agencies disposition authority to manage their permanent and temporary records is the most important responsibility I exercise as Archivist of the United States.

That’s because it determines what records will come to the National Archives for preservation and access by future generations.

* * *

However, across government today, agencies are not doing an effective enough job managing records and other information assets. And that is some cause for concern, for it means that there is much to do across government.

Last summer we required all Federal agencies to perform a self-assessment of their records management programs. The goal was to gather data to determine how effective Federal agencies are in meeting the statutory and regulatory requirements for records management.

Nearly 90 percent of all 245 cabinet-level agencies and their components, as well as independent agencies, responded.

The results are in, and they are not encouraging.

We found that four out of five agencies are at either a high (36 percent) or moderate (43 percent) risk of improper destruction of records.

These findings indicate that federal agencies are falling short in carrying out their records management responsibilities, particularly with electronic records.

Simply put, the Federal Government does not consistently manage its records and information—particularly its electronic records —well enough. They need to be better managed to meet business needs, protect rights or assure accountability, and ensure the continued preservation and access of permanently valuable records.

To me and to the Archives, this level of risk is more than just a great concern. It’s unacceptable, and we will work with Congress, the Office of Management and Budget, and the agencies to improve records management across government.

* * *

Now, here’s where you as Inspectors General come in.

I’m asking you to join us in our efforts to manage our government’s records and secure them so what we do today, whether we do it right or wrong, can inform future generations and future government decision-makers.

For your audits and investigations, good record keeping is essential.

Without good records management in your agencies, your jobs are much harder—and more difficult to hold officials at your agency accountable.

Including records management experts in the design and development of information systems is a best practice that NARA supports. It saves agencies the time and money in searching, storing, and preserving information for Government use and for future generations.

An example:

A year ago, we honored the National Reconnaissance Office with an Archivist Achievement Award in Records Management. They were honored because after an IG audit in 2004, the agency established a records management program in a partnership with their IG.

For five years, they worked together to establish a strong records and information management foundation that supported the business needs of the organization.

Among the results:

  • Designation and funding of a full-time or majority-time records officer for each program area of the agency.
  • Development and implementation of more than 230 program or office level file plans
  • Retirement of more than 20,000 cubic feet of inactive records to a NARA-compliant records storage facility.
  • Training of more than 200 key information and records management officers.
  • And finally —- and this is relevant to us today —- the inclusion of records management criteria in every
  • inspection the IG undertook at the agency.

Today, the agency’s records management program is a strategic part of the organization.

* * *

The law requires good record keeping by departments and agencies, but NARA has little resources for enforcement, so we’d like you to help us—and help yourselves at the same time.

Investigate your agency to see how it’s doing on complying with records management requirements; our records management officials will be glad to help you out. Then you can help us compile a better picture of how well records are being managed across government—especially electronic records.

If you need help or just some guidance, please call Paul Wester or Julie Hunsaker in our Modern Records Program at 301-837-0661.

Electronic records pose different problems and challenges than traditional records.

The Federal Government spends more than $80 Billion annually on information technology. Most —if not all—of the IT systems create or receive Federal records in some form.

Essential to managing these electronic records is developing cost effective electronic records management tools that work — then integrating them into agency IT systems.

Today, most agencies develop IT systems without thinking about records. Then, later, they must go back and spend more money to capture, preserve, and provide access to the records. Or—the records are simply lost and cannot be used over time.

Neither option is good government.

We at NARA will focus on reclaiming our records management leadership role by finding and developing these cost-effective IT solutions needed to meet the electronic records management challenges of today and the future.

* * *

One important way we’re doing that is with the Electronic Records Archives, or ERA, which we are building to hold all the Federal Government’s electronic records.

Eventually, all the most important records will go into ERA. This includes both those that are born-digital or traditional records that have been digitized.

The idea is to make these records accessible far into the future—free from dependence on any specific hardware or software. These records then will be accessible to the public at anytime from anywhere in the world.

As is always the case when you’re creating something new and innovative, there have been challenges, and ERA was no exception. But we’ve met those challenges and expect productive years ahead.

The first phase of ERA ran from 2005 to 2008 and involved electronic records from four federal agencies: the Patent and Trademark Office, the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the Naval Oceanographic Office. They now use the ERA. Later this year, the number of agencies that use the ERA will be expanded from these four to about 30.

The 77 terabytes of electronic records from the George W. Bush Administration that ERA took in will be available in accordance with the laws governing presidential records.

To preserve traditional paper records in electronic formats, we are also taking a strategic approach to digitization. We are searching for ways to step up our efforts in this massive undertaking by determining which records should get priority in digitization and how to accomplish as much digitization as possible at the least cost in the least amount of time.

When ERA is fully operational in 2012, it will be mandatory for all federal agencies to move their permanent records to the ERA.

* * *

Now I’d like to talk a bit about Open Government.

As you all know, President Obama late last year issued a directive on Open Government. It calls on those of us in Government to create a culture of transparency, participation, and collaboration in and among federal agencies.

The idea is to transform the relationship between the government and the people.

The goals of the President’s Open Government directive are, to a great extent, already embedded in the mission statement and strategic goals of our agency. It reads:

The National Archives and Records Administration serves American democracy by safeguarding and preserving the records of our Government, ensuring that the people can discover, use, and learn from this documentary heritage. We ensure continuing access to the essential documentation of the rights of American citizens and the actions of their government. We support democracy, promote civic education, and facilitate historical understanding of our national experience.

That’s the essence of the work we do every day—rooted in the belief that citizens have the right to see, examine, and learn from the records of their government.

Our Open Government plan goes further. It will:

  • Strengthen the culture of open government at the National Archives
  • Develop web and data services to meet our 21st Century needs.
  • Strengthen transparency at the National Archives.
  • Provide leadership and services to enable the Federal Government to meet 21st Century challenges.

* * *

Record keeping has become much more complex today, but we also owe it to future generations to find technological solutions to preserve the records of today’s government.

Together NARA and Federal agencies will be able to find these solutions, but it will only happen with your support and the support of your counterparts across the government.

All of this will involve a real change for our agency—not only in our processes, but also in the culture of the agency. We have the opportunity to work and communicate more efficiently and more effectively—and in completely new ways.

Our flagship initiative is to develop online services to meet our 21st Century needs.

At NARA, we plan to leverage the power of the Internet to make our records more easily available, as well as improve our engagement with employees and the public so they can better take advantage of the resources we have to access and make use of those records.

We will vastly improve our online capabilities in order to foster the public’s use of our records.

Included in this effort will be a redesign of our public web site, www.Archives.gov, to maximize public participation as well as develop streamlined search capabilities.

The intent is for our entire website, as well as access to our holdings online, to be a user-focused community experience. Further, we intend to explore ways to develop our current catalog into a social catalog that allows our online users to contribute information to descriptions of our records.

* * *

In this digital age, however, we must do more than that and more than good records management. This will involve a real change for the National Archives.

We are seeking employee engagement through blogs, webinars and other social media tools to allow greater communication among our staff and management located in 17 states and the District of Columbia.

We are going beyond www.Archives.gov to reach users where they are. We are doing that by seeking online public engagement through social media tools like Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, Twitter, and blogs.

In the next year, I want our agency to become a leader and innovator in all aspects of social media.

In the past year, we developed a number of successful social media projects. Now, we intend to develop a comprehensive social media strategy for the agency, which will include internal as well as external communications efforts using new media tools.

I have even launched my own blog: "AOTUS: Collector in Chief" available at blogs.archives.gov/aotus. I invite you to join me in discussing crucial challenges we face and the future of the National Archives.

We are publishing high value datasets on Data.gov. These raw data sets allow the public to take government information and create new interfaces or online experiences. We are eager to see what will be produced by unleashing public innovation on these datasets.

So far, we have posted on Data.gov the Federal Register from 2000 forward, the Code of Federal Regulations from 2007 through 2009, and descriptions from our Archival Research Catalog from 2002 forward. These ARC descriptions now cover about 65 percent of our holdings.

We have created an "Open Government" web page, www.archives.gov/open, which serves as the portal for open government activities at the National Archives. Your comments are always welcome there.

* * *

In addition, we are providing Open Government leadership to other Federal agencies.

Our new Office of Government Information Services provides services to mediate disputes between Freedom of Information Act requestors and Federal Agencies, as well as guidance for agencies in dealing with FOIA aspects of the Open Government Directive.

Our new National Declassification Center has taken the leadership role in streamlining the declassification process throughout the federal government, as well as eliminating the backlog of 400 million pages of classified records.

Some of these records pertain to military operations in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War—all of which are of great interest to historians.

The Office of the Federal Register will also be playing a major role. We’re going to re-launch the daily Federal Register as a daily web newspaper for the 21st Century that will guide readers to articles and topics that are most popular and relevant to their lives.

This new web newspaper will also highlight proposed and final rules that have significant impact on our economy or raise important regulatory policy issues. And it will track the opening and closing of comment periods and the dates of rules going into effect.

Users with an interest in a particular agency can easily follow each day’s documents, as well as the most popular documents issued in the past. Statistics and visualizations will track agency activity over time.

There will also be a Regulatory Timeline that pinpoints where a regulatory action stands in the official process and links to previous proposed rules and related notices.

And to further encourage citizen participation in government, each document that asks for public comments will feature a highly visible button for submitting comments directly to the official agency site.

If a reader wants to share news and comment opportunities with friends or interest groups, the document will include a feature for sending e-mail and posting to social networking sites.

This is something that will have an effect not only on the public, but on those of us in government as well.

* * *

The success of the President’s Open Government Initiative depends in large part on successful records management throughout the government. And that’s something that you, as agents of the public who hold our government accountable, can play a major role in. I hope you do so, and we’re here to help.

As you can see, I fully support the President’s Open Government Directive. It strengthens our democracy, and it strengthens our hand in fulfilling the mission of the National Archives.

I expect the principles of Open Government to change the way we do things . . . the way we think about what we do. . . and the way we deliver services to the public.

Thank you for inviting me here today.

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