About the National Archives

Remarks of Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero at the Society for Imaging and Technology Conference, Salt Lake City, Utah.

May 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?

“Creating a Digital Future: The National Archives and Information Technology”

The Archivist was introduced by Kate Zwaard of the U.S. Government Printing Office

Good morning, and thank you, Kate, for that kind introduction.

Let me take a moment to introduce some of my colleagues from the National Archives who are with me here this morning—if they’re up!  Meg Phillips was on the technical program committee.  David Lake participated in the PREMIS workshop.  Both Meg and David have, especially in the past year, been instrumental in delivering extraordinarily perceptive and needed direction to our Electronic Records Archive project. 

Michael Horsley and John Berezich will present tomorrow on “Implementing a Quality Assurance Program for Monitoring Scanner Performance.”  Thursday you’ll hear from Mike Wash, our Open Government Executive and Chief Information Officer.  I recently stole Mike from the Government Printing Office and he has hit the pavement running. 

As you get to listen to and interact with these folks you will recognize an extraordinary layer of talent that exists in your Government—not just my agency, although I strive to make mine the best.  In a time when public perception of our Government is the lowest ever, I cite these guys as an example of the wise use of your tax dollars!    

It’s a pleasure to be here to talk about how we at the National Archives can more effectively and efficiently provide access to our citizens to the records in our holdings.

And we all know that, in today’s world, it can only be done with technology!

At the National Archives, we are actively experimenting with tools to expand access and exploring how these tools are being used at other Federal agencies to inform our records management guidance and perform our fundamental archival responsibilities.

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You know, throughout my professional life I have striven hard to get the work of my area of responsibility reflected in the annual report of my superior—department head, library director, or university president.  In January, my new supervisor came through in his State of the Union Address!  President Obama described the digital world in which we will be living—in the very near future:

“Within the next five years, we’ll make it possible for businesses to deploy the next generation of high-speed wireless coverage to 98% of all Americans.  This isn’t just about faster Internet or fewer dropped calls.  It’s about connecting every part of America to the digital age.  It’s about a rural community in Iowa or Alabama where farmers and small business owners will be able to sell their products all over the world.  It’s about a firefighter who can download the design of a burning building onto a handheld device; a student who can take classes with a digital textbook; or a patient who can have face-to-face video chats with her doctor.”   
 
That vision comes from the December 2010 report of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology entitled “Designing a Digital Future”—an aggressive agenda which acknowledges that:

“Information technology is transforming government operations and opening new communication channels between government and citizens.  These new channels—providing increased and more convenient access to government records—open up exciting possibilities for sharing information and delivering services.”

Continuing with the language of the report:  “All citizens will be able to make effective use of government data thanks to breakthrough tools supporting access, analysis, and visualization for non-experts.  Archivists, historians, journalists and the public will have better and more convenient access to government records, including information previously available only in paper form.”

“Progress toward opening data and documents at the Office of Science Technology Policy, the National Archives and Records Administration and elsewhere deserve continued effort and attention.”

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A digital democracy can transform our society over the next decade or two.  Government will be more responsive to and accountable because citizens can see and measure how it responds to requests and problems—making them active participants in their government.
 
Advancing this digital democracy vision, partnerships among the Federal government, commercial sector, university libraries, and public archives are important to build and maintain the capacity to store critical data. 

In the specific areas of our NARA contributions to relevant research developing practical tools, we are very pleased to be recognized by the White House as the current "featured member agency" in the White House's Networking and Information Technology Research & Development Program. This is an acknowledgement of the work we do in social media computing to promote transparency of research developments as they occur.

Our research collaboration with the Texas Advanced Computing Center was cited in the May issue of Discover Magazine, by Futurity and by the National Science Foundation for novel advances in applications of visualization technologies.

Additionally, we have also received international recognition for our NARA sponsored research collaborations with the Georgia Tech Research Institute for significant advances in capabilities of the DROID signature set used worldwide in identifying the formats of the digital files.

Our continuing collaboration with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is advancing developments in open source integrated rules oriented data systems (IRODS) technologies for managing very large scale collections worldwide.

And we have joined the University of Maryland, other regionally based Federal agencies, and universities in the Maryland-led Middle Atlantic Cross Roads (MAX).  MAX is a regional research network where we have been able to contribute our applied research capabilities.  Of particular interest to us is the work to understand large scale data transport, including optimal network routing, in digital preservation infrastructure.  

All this underscores several things that should be clear:

  • We are actively involved in embracing and experimenting with information technology that will increase public access to the records of government.
  • We are giving increased attention to developing practical IT solutions to improve Federal agency management of electronic records—beginning at their creation.
  • We are committed to pushing the envelope to find innovative and efficient ways to preserve electronic records and to ensure their accessibility.
  • And we are willing to take risks. 

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On his first full day in office in 2009, President Obama announced an Open Government initiative that would transform the way government does business and how people interact with the government. He called for transparency, collaboration, and participation.

We were ready, for these three concepts are already embedded in our mission statement and are in line with our goal of continued expansion of access to Federal records.

After all, the work we do every day is rooted in the belief that citizens have the right to see, examine, and learn from the records that guarantee citizens’ rights, document government actions, and tell the story of the nation.

Many of you are familiar with the course we are on to the digital future with our Electronic Records Archives – ERA.  ERA is a means for preserving electronic records over time.  It improves the preservation of and most importantly -- access to -- computer-based records far into the future--forever, I hope.  Records will be accessible regardless of what kind of hardware and software was used to create them or is available in the future.
We are using ERA to preserve and provide access to volumes of electronic records that we could not have absorbed before.  We have been developing, testing, and refining the system since 2005.
It is designed not only to preserve and but also to manage the National Archives’ electronic records and to manage the lifecycle of paper records and other holdings. The development phase for the ERA concludes at the end of this fiscal year. In October, ERA will be in an operations and maintenance phase.

ERA already holds 103 Terabytes of electronic records, most of them from the George W. Bush White House. But this is just the beginning. By the end of Fiscal Year 2010, all agencies and departments must use ERA for scheduling and transferring permanent records to NARA.
Even though the development phase will end, we can be pleased that work on the ERA has yielded practical IT solutions for improving Federal agency management of electronic records from the point of creation. You’ll be hearing more about ERA and IT activities later in the conference from Mike Wash.

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As we take up the task of preserving born-digital records with the ERA, we are also working aggressively to turn traditional paper records into electronic versions.

We cannot leave our past behind, and we live in a time where to more and more people—if it doesn’t exist online, it doesn’t exist.

As a result, we are busy digitizing millions of pages of our records.

As you all know, digitizing is labor intensive, takes lots of time, and is expensive. That’s why we have developed partnerships to help us make available traditional records in ways unimaginable a few short years ago.

In Fiscal Year 2010, we digitized 1.4 million pages of records never before reformatted---with the help of partners Family Search and Footnote. About half of these pages have been indexed and mounted on partner websites so far.  After five years, we receive from our partners all the images and associated metadata.

We’re making available more and more frequently-requested records, such as those of Vietnam-era military unit awards for heroism, of the Holocaust and its aftermath, and Civil War pension certificates.

We are also doing our own digitizing, and that includes the 4 million pages of the 1940 census, which will be released next April – in digital format only.

One of our challenges is to make it easier to access these electronic records, whether born digital or not. Late last year, we launched our Online Public Access system, which is a public portal for searching all the resources of the National Archives across all the silos of content.  It provides a greatly improved integrated search of our holdings, including electronic and digitized records and catalog records for our physical holdings. Until the recent past, researchers had to search multiple sources on our website. Now, only a single search is necessary.

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The role that records play in our democracy is fundamentally changing.  Unlocking government data allows the public to develop applications, mashups, and innovations in ways that were previously unthinkable. 

Our presence on the Internet is expanding.  Our public website was recently redesigned and is now easier to navigate to find what you’re looking for.  I am very proud of our website and the folks who work on it.  It has received a 2011 ClearMark Award, given to the best plain language documents and websites. 

I should note here that our website already has images of many historical records and photographs that the public has requested frequently or that have great historical value.

And our social media activities are very rapidly expanding beyond Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to ensure our presence on the new and emerging platforms.  Through these platforms many people interact daily with the National Archives to learn what the records of the past have to day.

The Open Government Initiative is opening data and documents at the National Archives and elsewhere, transforming the way the government does business and the way people interact with their government.

Open government is a hallmark of a democracy. The records of the democratic government belong to its citizens, and providing access to them is a statutory obligation in the United States of America. The National Archives and Records Administration serves American democracy by safeguarding and preserving these records, 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.

And we are working hard to make accessible as many records as possible. 

Our Office of Government Information Services is focusing on expediting the Freedom of Information Act request process.  These folks step in and resolve disputes between agencies and requesters and by encouraging agencies to post online information already released as well as information that is likely to be sought through the FOIA process.

Our Information Security Oversight Office oversees the classification and declassification programs throughout government.  It is working now to put some consistency in classification standards and make sure agencies classify only material that needs to be classified for only as long as need be.
And our National Declassification Center was created in December 2009 to eliminate a backlog of about 400m pages of unprocessed classified records—and to ensure that no future backlog exists.  So far, the Center has put a big dent in that backlog through new processes developed especially for the job.  The deadline for their work is the end of calendar year 2013.

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Because of work done every day in the 44 National Archives facilities across the nation, the public can examine the records that document the actions of Government officials, the entitlements of individuals, the events that make up American history, and in some instances, how those events have affected the rest of the world.

While the challenges of processing “born-digital” records seem overwhelming some days, as the Federal Government produces records faster than the National Archives can currently absorb them, I am inspired when I hear our talented and creative staff look upon this as a challenge rather than an impediment.  

Last month, Bob Chadduck, who heads up our Center for Advanced Systems and Technologies, shared his thoughts on this matter at a MAGIC conference. He said, “Technical hurdles constitute simply a novel opportunity and perhaps some of the most interesting opportunities for research.” 

Now that really is magic!

I am confident that this conference -- Archiving 2011 -- will capitalize on the optimism and energy of people like Bob – and all of you – curators, information junkies, archivists, and scientists alike.  And I challenge you to use your time here to inspire each other to enhance our collective capabilities for the digital future by identifying those novel and interesting opportunities.

Thanks for the opportunity to talk with you this morning.

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The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
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