About the National Archives

Prepared Remarks of Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero at Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

February 10, 2011

"Security vs. Freedom of Information"

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 inviting me to Franklin and Marshall College today.

Today’s topic speaks to the whole issue of access to the records we hold in the National Archives for the people of the United States. And access to these records is important in a democracy such as ours.

Our citizens need to have access to the records that guarantee their rights and freedoms and entitlements.

They need access to the records in order to hold government officials accountable for their actions.

And they need the records to learn the full story of the American experience — the celebrated triumphs as well as the dark chapters.

As the nation’s record keeper, the National Archives ensures that the people have this access.

The records that end up in our permanent holdings represent only about 2 to 3 percent of all those created by federal departments and agencies.

But they are the most important records.

They are preserved and protected in 14 regional archives and 17 federal records centers—Philadelphia has one of each. They’re also in 13 presidential libraries, the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis and our facilities in the Washington area. Our main building in Washington houses the original Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

In all these locations, we have accessioned as permanent records more than 10 billion pages of textual documents; 7.2 million maps, charts, and architectural drawings; more than 40 million photographs; billions of machine-readable data sets; and miles of film and videotape.

And, in the fastest growing category, we have taken in so far around 100 terabytes of electronic records—82 of these terabytes are from the George W. Bush White House alone. That translates into more than 240 million email messages.

Over the years, millions of people have come to us for genealogy information in the form of ship’s records, immigration lists, or Civil War pension files. Millions more contact our St. Louis facility for their military records to qualify for government benefits.

Two stories to give you a sense of how are records are used:

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 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 a nursing home was waiting for proof of his divorce...so he could remarry.

Others consult the records of Congress we hold in Washington to enrich their understanding of representative government, and still others visit our Presidential libraries to learn more about our most recent chief executives.

Historians, journalists, and lawyers pour over millions of pages as they write books, articles, and legal briefs.

* * * * *

Today, records are created electronically, and they can be accessed from just about anywhere via the Internet.

We recently redesigned our web site to make it easier for visitors to access records that were born digital or are most-requested traditional records that have been digitized.

And to help search our web site, we recently launched a new search tool, Online Public Access. At this time, it allows our Internet visitors access to nearly one million electronic records in our holdings and to search all the pages on our web site.

Because we are the Nation’s record keeper and because we are a non-partisan agency of the Government, we have, over time, assumed a number of additional responsibilities related to expanded access to information.

The Office of Government Information Services was established in September 2009.within our agency to monitor government-wide activity under the Freedom of Information Act.

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

In late 2009, 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 2,400 different security classification guides at work.

And it must finish processing a backlog of more than 400 million pages of records awaiting declassification and public access by December 31, 2013. To date, nearly a quarter of that backlog is in some stage of evaluation, and so far 12 million pages have been released to the open shelves.

A significant portion of these records pertain to military operations and World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War --- all of which are of great interest to historians who specialize in that period in our nation’s history.

The center’s motto is: Releasing All We Can, Protecting What We Must.

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."

One other way we’re trying to broaden access to government records is with an online edition of the daily Federal Register. It 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.

Last summer, we launched Federal Register 2.0 on the Internet. The new, user-friendly version of the print edition functions much like a newspaper web page. It makes it easier to find what you need, comment on proposed rules, and share materials relevant to your interests.

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!

* * * * *

Along with these efforts to make more records accessible while maintaining their security, we are developing a new class of researchers called "citizen archivists."

Often, researchers and authors are interested in a particular person, event, or period in American history and become deeply immersed in their subjects and passionate about the records. They can become more familiar with a certain set of records than our own archivists, each of whom has responsibility for thousands of records.

Last year, I met Jonathan Webb Deiss, a researcher at the Archives. His knowledge and enthusiasm for discovering treasures makes him a model Citizen Archivist, and in December he received our first-ever Citizen Archivist Award.

Jonathan found a previously unpublicized Revolutionary War diary in the Records of the U.S. Senate. As a knowledgeable and skilled researcher, he knew that the journal of a young solider from New Hampshire to West Point, New York, was important. In it, the soldier describes General George Washington at West Point and hearing the "news of Gen’l Arnold the commander of the Garrison deserting to the Enemy."

Jonathan’s discovery proves there are still treasures to find within our records. With almost 10 billion pieces of paper, we don’t know what researchers, historians, and Citizen Archivists will find in the future. And we don’t know what kind of impact their discoveries will have on scholarship and our understanding of historical events.

Citizen Archivists’ discoveries, like Samuel Leavitt’s Revolutionary War diary, will be added to existing descriptions of our records. This type of collaboration between our staff and those who use our records is crucial. We have created a wiki for researchers like Jonathan to share their discoveries with us.

Jonathan’s discovery wasn’t the first surprise lurking in the stacks. Over the years we’ve discovered documents that were misfiled, never opened, or simply not recognized as important by staff and researchers. Such things as Presidential diaries, documents pertaining to the Louisiana Purchase, and enemy war plans have come to light.

Archivists don’t have the time to go through the files as closely as researchers do, and that’s why we are sometimes pleasantly surprised. In rethinking our traditional approaches, we will leverage the knowledge and expertise of Citizen Archivists.

* * * * *

Our re-designed web site and newly declassified records await the public when they come to the National Archives. But we are also reaching out to the public in many new ways and changing the way people interact with the National Archives.

The National Archives is becoming a leader in government in the use of social media and we have embarked on it in a big way. I think a lot of our work in this area can be especially helpful in your studies here.

Using social media tools, we are reaching out to the public in many new ways and changing the way people interact with the National Archives.

During our 75th anniversary year in 2009, we launched our YouTube page and created 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 nine months our films were viewed more than 100,000 times. By the end of this month (February 2011), our videos will have been viewed more than a half-million times. Our YouTube channel is part of a suite of social media projects launched at the National Archives spanning the blogosphere, wikis, Twitter, Flickr, Foursquare, and Facebook. We maintain eight blogs to inform customers— whether it’s the latest developments in genealogical research, historical anecdotes, information from the regional archives, or the latest from yours truly.

Last month, we launched the "Document of the Day" app, which allows users to view NARA records on their iPad, iPhone, or Droid.

A year ago we had two Facebook pages. Now we have more than 20. Our primary Facebook page has more than 12,000 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 16 Twitter feeds.

These projects are only the beginning, however, especially as we focus on mobile technologies. Our flagship publication, Prologue magazine, now has a growing number of subscribers on the iPad, iPhone, and Droid and was the first federal publication to appear on the digital bookshelves of Zinio.com, Scribd, and Barnes & Noble.

But providing as complete access as we can while fulfilling our role as the custodians and protectors of these records presents us with a challenge. It’s something we wrestle with every day.

* * * * *

The security of government records has not always been taken seriously in the United States. It was not until 1934 that the National Archives was founded, and before then records were seldom preserved as carefully as we preserve records now.

Just after the National Archives was created, the first Archivist of the United States, Robert Digges Wimberly Connor, arrived to face an overwhelming task.

In gathering the records to include in the new Archives, Connor and his staff discovered that records around the government were in bad shape. 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!

* * * * *

We still have security issues, but they don’t involve dead cats or bugs.

Providing access to records also requires the trust of those who use and handle the records. Over the years, the National Archives has faced many physical and environmental threats to our holdings. These include fire, water, insects and mold. NARA has been open and forthcoming about these threats, and our efforts to combat them.

However, we have not been very candid and transparent about another risk to our collection—the risk of theft and intentional destruction of our holdings.

Since becoming Archivist of the United States, I have recognized this condition and have taken strong measures to deal with this problem.

Like other archives, museums, and libraries around the country, the National Archives can proudly boast that our holdings are open and accessible to the public.

But it also puts us and these institutions at risk from individuals who want to diminish our collections for their own selfish purposes.

I take theft of documents very seriously, and the security of our holdings is my highest priority. Unfortunately, many thefts are perpetrated by employees, and that is especially disheartening. These individuals have lost sight of their responsibilities as caretakers.

In an effort to protect our records, we have installed video cameras in all our research rooms capable of monitoring all public research areas. And we strictly limit what researchers can take with them when they are in those rooms reviewing records. Researchers’ belongings are searched by research room staff and security guards when they leave the research room and the building.

Over the past decade, several individuals have stolen documents and put them up for sale on the Internet. Sharp-eyed researchers who had used them in their own research recognized them and alerted us. Those individuals went to prison.

Sadly, one of them was an Archives employee. Archives staff members who pilfer from the collections with which they are entrusted assault history, and the impact of their betrayal is felt everywhere---especially among their colleagues.

I have moved to address and mitigate this real threat by instituting a new policy in our Washington, DC,and College Park, Maryland, buildings of searching bags being taken out by staff—including me—as we leave the building.

We also recently uncovered an unusual case where a researcher did not steal a document, but he altered it for his own gain.

A senior archivist at the Archives contacted our Office of Inspector General to report an apparent alteration to the pardon of a Union soldier in the Civil War. The pardon was signed by President Abraham Lincoln.

Investigators assigned to the Office of Inspector General acted upon this referral, and were able to obtain a full and willing confession, in writing, from a noted historian that he had changed the date to read April 14, 1865, instead of April 14, 1864.

This change in the date to 1865 made the document appear to be one of President Lincoln's last official actions on the day he was assassinated.

Based upon the historical importance subsequently assigned to this pardon, it had gained a certain amount of fame. The historian wrote a book about it and raised his profile in the history community.

This case is unique. The statute of limitations has expired so the researcher could not be prosecuted, but we have ensured that he will never be allowed into the National Archives again.

However, it constitutes another tile in a mosaic that cannot and will not be ignored. These are some of the kinds of problems we face as we work to provide the widest access to the records of our government that guarantee the rights of our citizens, document the actions of our government officials, and tell the story of our national experience.

In addition to these specific actions, we have elevated records security among our many missions.

Late last year, we formed a Holdings Protection Team. Its job is not only to develop policies for protecting our holdings, but to educate the staff on how to do so.

So far, the team has educated more than 2,000 NARA employees, contractors, and volunteers at 26 of our locations. The team has also done site inspections at our regional records facilities and presidential libraries to support holdings protect and monitor compliance with policy.

This past fall, the team took over full responsibility for the movement of records between NARA facilities and affiliate agencies for exhibit, loan or permanent storage. These include the Emancipation Proclamation exhibit tour, the loan of Civil War records to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, and the loan of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo to the Arizona State Museum.

The team works closely with our Office of Inspector General, which has demonstrated expertise in investigating and recovering lost or stolen holdings. Through the IG’s work, many records and artifacts have been recovered and thieves have been successfully prosecuted.

The IG’s own Archival Recovery Team assists those who believe they may be in possession of a lost or stolen document or have knowledge of others who have some or are attempting to sell them. This recovery team publicizes items that have been lost or stolen and asks citizens to contact them if they have seen any of them.

* * * * *

Everything we do now at the Archives is in synch with the President’s desire to have an "open government." He began his administration with an Open Government Initiative to create a culture of transparency, participation, and collaboration in and among Federal agencies.

Its goal: Transform the relationship between government and the people.

The principles of open government—as outlined by the President—are, to a great extent, already embedded in the mission statement and strategic goals of the National Archives and Records Administration.

After all, the essence of the work we do every day is the belief that citizens have the right to see, examine, and learn from the records that document the actions of their government. But in this digital age, we have the opportunity to do more.

In response to the President’s request of all agencies and departments, we developed our own Open Government Plan. And, in keeping with his Open Government Initiative, we are working to encourage more participation and collaboration in our work, both within our staff—and especially with the public.

Internally, we are reorganizing and transforming our agency to be better able to provide access to the records while keeping them safe and secure. This transformation process is being done by the staff itself. Staff at all grades and from all our locations meet and share ideas on how to make the National Archives work better for our citizens.

I know the result will allow us to better provide access to records in a more open government. And I hope you all take advantage of our resources in your future studies.

Thank you.

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