About the National Archives

Prepared remarks of Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero in opening the Media Access to Government Information Conference. Washington, DC.

April 12, 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?

Good morning, and welcome to the National Archives and the William G. McGowan Theater.
It is a special pleasure to be partnering with the Dewitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy at Duke University—where I was fortunate enough to spend eight years as University Librarian—to create a little MAGIC—Media Access to Government Information Conference—right here on Pennsylvania Avenue. 

The Dewitt Wallace Center shares many of our concerns about the importance of access by everyone to the records that are the bedrock of our robust democracy.

Today, we have brought together government officials, reporters, scholars, and non-government organization leaders. They’re here to help you as journalists learn more about gaining access to and using government records. And they’ll discuss how changing technologies are changing the ways you can access that information.

But first, let me tell you about some things the National Archives is doing to improve access to records we hold and to help you obtain records at other federal departments and agencies.
I know that for many of you the Freedom of Information Act is an important tool in gaining access to records that agencies might be reluctant to release.  It works, but it can take a long time.

Now, we can offer some help.

Congress created the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) within NARA in 2009. Its focus is to expedite the FOIA process and avoid lengthy administrative delays in getting the information you want. Since its creation, it has made substantial progress with FOIA requests in hundreds of cases that were quickly resolved informally.

In its first full year of operation, OGIS handled 391 cases, most of which did not rise to the level of dispute. Of the 83 cases that did involve disputes between requesters and agencies, OGIS resolved more than four out of five.

Among its successful cases are these.

* A reporter seeking Treasury Department records about the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
* A reporter investigating the murder of an NFL player through the records of the Department of Homeland Security, and
* Requests for databases from several agencies concerning travel by government employees.
Now, we are working to get agencies and departments to post information released under FOIA to their web sites. And we’re also urging them to anticipate your interests in particular records and post them as well so you won’t have to resort to FOIA.

Some of the records you would like to examine are classified, and NARA is working with agencies to make sure that only information that requires protection is classified.

And – taking it a bit further –we try to ensure that such information is classified only for as long as is necessary.

We do this through our Information Security Oversight Office. This office oversees the classification and declassification programs of government agencies. The idea, of course, is to ensure public access where appropriate while safeguarding classified national security information.
One of the things ISOO is working on now is the inconsistency of classification standards within the federal government.

There are nearly 25-hundred classification guides within the federal government. Some of them are for entire agencies, some for a specific weapon system or a program, and others for a component of a system or program. 

We’re trying to reduce the number of guides and to increase consistency, and one of the ways ISOO does that is to make sure these guides are reviewed and updated at least every five years. 
We’ve had some success on this front in the past few years.  In 2008, only a third of the classification guides used by agencies had been updated within the previous five years.  Two years later, three-quarters had been updated within the previous five years.

Yes, there is a backlog of more than 400 million pages of classified material at our College Park facility that must be reviewed by December 31, 2013.

In most cases, the records will be declassified and placed on our open shelves.  These records are of great interest as they pertain to World War II, Korean, Vietnam and military intelligence.
One of the center’s first jobs was to establish efficient business processes for declassification and tracking of records. That’s been done.

Many of the documents contain classified information from more than one agency, so all agencies involved must sign off on it. To speed this process up, we’ve brought representatives of those agencies to our College Park facility so these decisions can be made there, on the spot - cutting down the time it takes to get the records to you.

But even after a document has passed through all its classification reviews, it must still be processed archivally. 

Documents must be organized and arranged into series and put in order to make them easier for researchers to use. In some cases, NARA archivists will create finding aids for the documents.

So far, the news is good.

Of the more than 400 million pages, 84 million have passed the quality review process, the crucial first stage of the review process. And of the 14.5 million pages that have been fully reviewed, 91 percent were declassified and put on open access to researchers.

And late last year, we launched our Online Public Access system, which is a public portal for searching all the resources of the National Archives.

All of these efforts have one goal in common: increasing your access to the holdings of the Archives and to federal records throughout the government.

Technological breakthroughs and the increasing use of social media are providing many new opportunities for us to provide access to records for you.  

So again, welcome to the National Archives and we hope to send you home tonight with some useful information on how to better access federal records.  Enjoy the program.
Now, I’d like to introduce Sanford Unger, the President of Goucher College in Baltimore and a member of the U.S. Public Interest Declassification Board —— and himself a former journalist and author. 

Before assuming his position at Goucher, he was Director of Voice of America for two years.   From 1986 to 1999 he was Dean of the School of Communication at American University.  
He served as host of “All things Considered” for NPR in the early 1980s and career highlights include Washington editor of The Atlantic, managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, and a staff writer for The Washington Post.   He was a correspondent for UPI in Paris and for Newsweek in Nairobi and has contributed to The Economist and the New York Times Magazine.

Mr. Ungar. . . .  

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