About the National Archives

Prepared Remarks of Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero before the Calderon Foundation in Puerto Rico.

February 17, 2011

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?

"Protecting National Security in an Open Government Environment: the Role of the National Archives."

 "Supporting and Promoting Open Government: Opportunities for the National Archives."

Thank you for that kind introduction.

As the Nation’s record keeper, I am daily stunned by the history captured in our records and the value they bring to the lives of individuals. 

I’ve seen the endorsed check we wrote to Russia for 7.2 million dollars for the purchase of Alaska in 1867.  I saw Walt Whitman’s personnel file from his service at the Bureau of Indian Affairs during the 1860s which contains a letter of recommendation written by Ralph Waldo Emerson.  We have a letter written to President McKinley in 1898 by Annie Oakley offering to provide 50 women sharpshooters (with their own rifles and ammunition) to fight in the Spanish-American War.  And there was a letter from “The Devil” to Jefferson Davis while he was imprisoned after the Civil War.

In St. Louis at the National Personnel Records Center, where we have more than 80 million records of those who have served in the military, I saw the records of Colin Powell, Douglas MacArthur, Elvis Presley, and my own.  And that of Clark Gable whose World War II discharge papers are signed by his Personnel Officer, Captain Ronald Reagan

And then there were three surprises: copies of letters I had written to President Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson when I was a young boy growing up in Beverly, Massachusetts. I was amazed that my letters had been preserved in the in their respective presidential libraries.

Now, I don’t want you to think I spend all my time looking at famous records or my personal files!

I wanted to illustrate how open our government is – open so I could see documents that shaped our history, documents about me even. These are things any citizen can do -– you don’t have to be Archivist of the United States.

The United States of America has an open government, as any robust democracy should have.  When he took office, President Obama promised a more open government—with more transparency, more participation, and more collaboration between government and the people and among agencies themselves.

Our mission statement strikes similar themes. After all, the cornerstone of the work we do every day is transparency and openness. We believe citizens have the right to see, examine, and learn from the records that document their rights and entitlements, the actions of their government officials and the history of their nation.

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The National Archives’ role in government is clear and simple.

We are the nation’s record keeper. We safeguard and preserve the records of our Federal Government and make them accessible so our citizens can use them and learn from them.

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. We provide access to them at 44 locations around the country in our regional archives, affiliated archives, federal records centers, 13 presidential libraries, the St. Louis records center, and at our facilities in the Washington area.

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 and miles of film and videotape.

Over the years, many thousands — perhaps millions —of people have come to us in search of  information relating to their ancestors, using  ship’s passenger’s records, immigration files, Revolutionary War and Civil War pension files, and census records. 

Millions more contact us in St. Louis for their military records to qualify for government benefits.

Others consult the records of Congress that 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. And our regional archives are often first stops for information about family histories or trials in federal courts around the country.

Now, records are created electronically, and eventually they can be accessed from just about anywhere via the Internet. More and more individuals visit us on our web site to find records that were born digital or are the most-requested paper-based records that have been digitized.

We recently launched a new search tool, Online Public Access. It allows our Internet visitors to have access to nearly one million electronic records in our holdings and to easily search them.

These electronic records I just mentioned will be stored in our 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. The idea is 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 hardware and software so the public will always have access.

Progress on ERA has been slow, but steady.  Now, we have 100 terabytes of electronic records in ERA—82 of these terabytes are from the George W. Bush White House alone. We expect ERA to be fully operational by the end of 2011.

The ERA will store the electronic records being created today, but those new records present us with a challenge --- What is a record?  A Facebook page?  A Presidential tweet?  The blogs of some agency within a cabinet department?

These are some of the challenges we face in the digital era.

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On the other hand, the digital era allows us to take full advantage of the emphasis on “open government” to open up the Archives more and make it friendlier for our customers--- the American public.

When the public comes to us on the Internet, we have a new, easier-to-navigate web site and the new search engine to greet them. And our buildings in both College Park and downtown Washington have been wired for wi-fi.

But we’re not waiting for them to come to us. We’re going to them.

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.

As a result, the National Archives is becoming a leader in government in the use of social media. 

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, and one of them is mine.

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 sixteen 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.

Generation Y has blown past the Baby Boomers in terms of overall population share, and they use these platforms the way our generation relied on the daily mail, the newspaper, and television. 

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.

All of these new social media tools will help us take the National Archives to more people and help them use the records we hold for them.

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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—as well as an opportunity.

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.

Most Americans don’t realize that they are somewhere in the Archives. Most of them are certainly in the Census records. But if you worked for the Federal Government in uniform or as a civilian, you’re in it. If you were involved in a Federal court case, you’re in it. If you immigrated to the United States and were naturalized, you’re in it.

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 our regional archives 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.

We have hundreds of stories like this from our facilities all over the country. Archives are reuniting citizens with their rights and helping historians research and tell the American story. 

But we are not doing all the hard work. Researchers at the Archives are helping us do our jobs and there’s a great opportunity for the public to help us do our job and give us some citizen input at the same time.

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.

Jonathan found a previously unpublicized Revolutionary War diary in the Records of the U.S. Senate. As a knowledgeable and skilled researcher, Jonathan 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 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 need to leverage the knowledge and expertise of Citizen Archivists.

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But increasing public access must depend on more than occasional discoveries by researchers or staff.

Access is our business, and the President’s Open Government Initiative has come along just as we are opening new avenues to retrieve information in our holdings.

Our Office of Government Information Services was established within the Archives in 2009 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 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 2,000 different security classification guides at work.

And it must finish processing more than 400 million pages of records awaiting declassification and release to the public 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.

The Information Security Oversight Office, also located within the Archives, oversees the classification programs of government and industry. Its job is to ensure public access where appropriate while 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 for all of our citizens to find what they need, comment on proposed rules, and share materials relevant to their interests. 

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While we aim to make accessible to all as many of our records as possible, we also work hard to protect those records from those individuals who would steal, mutilate, or alter them in any way.

The job of protecting and preserving the nation’s records has come a long way since the National Archives opened in 1934. The records 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. We have also had to deal with damage from fire, water, and mold.

Today, there are new challenges.

Electronic records of all kinds continue to be created in government at an incredible rate. A never-ending array of social media platforms allows us to reach the public in ways we never could have imagined a few years ago. And technology is making it easier to access the National Archives from wherever you are.  

We are also developing new strategies to deal with the protection of records in a world where records are now born digital and there are many more ways to access them. The challenge we are meeting here is to retain not only the access to these records, but their authenticity.

We must also deal with people who would steal, multilate, or alter the records we hold. Since becoming Archivist of the United States, I have recognized this problem and have taken strong measures to deal with it.

The security of the holdings of the Archives is my highest priority, and I will not tolerate any violation of the law that protects both records and property that belongs to the government and the people.

Unfortunately, some 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. We strictly limit what researchers can take with them when they are in those rooms reviewing records.  In Washington and College Park, we inspect researchers’ belongings as they leave our research rooms, then again when they leave the building, a policy that will be expanded to other NARA facilities. 

And  now in Washington and College Park we even inspect staff bags and briefcases – including mine – when we leave the building.

Over the past decade, several individuals have stolen documents and put them up for sale on the Internet or attempted to sell them to trustworthy collectors. 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.

We also recently had 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.

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.  

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. And this team works closely with our Office of Inspector General and its own Archival Recovery Team to respond to reports of lost or stolen documents and work with law enforcement agencies to track down those who would steal or mutilate historical documents.

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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.

In response to the President’s Initiative, we developed our own Open Government Plan.  And 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 important services to our customers and keep our holdings safe and secure.  This transformation process is being done by the staff itself. Staff at all grades and from all our locations have met and shared 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.

I am excited about our changes, for I see them as important ways the federal government can ensure the basic rights of citizens in a democracy by providing access to the records that guarantee citizen rights, hold the government accountable, and document the nation’s history. 

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.

Thank you.

About the National Archives >

The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
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