About the National Archives

Remarks of Deputy Archivist of the United States Debra Steidel Wall at the plenary session of the joint annual meeting of the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators and the Council of State Archivists. Nashville, Tennessee.

July 14, 2011

The Deputy Archivist was introduced by Galen Wilson of the National Archives’ Federal Records Center in Dayton, OH

Thank you, Galen, for that kind introduction. The Archivist, David Ferriero, has asked me to send his greetings and express his regret that he couldn’t be here today.  He is at the Ford Library in Grand Rapids representing the Archives at the funeral of former First Lady Betty Ford. 

It’s a real honor for me to speak in his place.  While this is only my second week on the job as Deputy Archivist, it is certainly not my first time meeting with and working with many of you.  I truly appreciate what the people in this room do every day.  And I know that the success of the National Archives depends, of course, on the excellence of federal information managers and archivists.

Justice Brandeis famously said that state governments are “laboratories of democracy,” where new approaches to public policy could be tested. In our field, state and local government records administrators and archivists have always played a similar role.  So that’s one of the reasons I look forward to exchanging new ideas, perspectives, and approaches with all of you.

I also want to take this opportunity to say how much we at the National Archives appreciate the tremendous work state and local professionals have done at a time when you are facing obstacles of historic proportions.  You have struggled year after year with devastating cuts to your budgets.

At NARA, we’re facing our own funding struggles, as Congress and the President wrangle about the debt ceiling and the FY 12 federal budget. But—as those of you listening to me today know all too well—state and local records administrators and archivists have suffered disproportionate budget cuts far longer.

To cite but one example—here in our host state, all of Tennessee has been classified as a Civil War national heritage site.  But the Tennessee State Library and Archives has been given a preservation budget of … $22,500 … for Civil War preservation in the entire state.

Like all of you, they have made the best of what they have. In fact, our Tennessee colleagues are using their shoestring budget in incredibly creative ways. They have sent Tennessee librarians and archivists fanning into every county in their own Civil War–themed version of the Antiques Road show. But like every government information manager, they also know that in the long run—without adequate public investment—not even the most brilliant improvisation will safeguard vital records.  That’s why it’s more important than ever that we share ideas for meeting our common challenges.

In that spirit I’ll begin by talking about three of the most important challenges we face. Then I’ll describe how the National Archives is working to meet them, which could offer some useful examples for other government archives.

The first major challenge is the openness vs. privacy paradox.

At the National Archives we believe strongly that the job of government archives and libraries is more than simply keeping records safe and sound. Thomas Jefferson said, “Information is the currency of democracy.” To keep democracy healthy and vibrant, I believe strongly that such currency must be circulated, made available and put to use by as many people as possible.
Here’s how President Obama put it when he issued his Open Government Directive:

“My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration.  Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”

At the same time, this new availability of information makes it more important and more difficult to keep certain kinds of vital information private. At the Archives, we provide as much access as possible to public records. But we also know that the release of some records could cause harm to our nation’s security (or personal privacy), and they must be protected.

Striking this careful balance is at the heart of the role of our Information Security Oversight Office— we call it ISOO—which has a very big job when it comes to classifying and declassifying government materials.

ISOO oversees the classification and declassification programs of government agencies—ensuring public access where appropriate while safeguarding classified national security information. Through its oversight and related educational and outreach activities, ISOO strives to ensure that only information that requires protection is classified. But we also ensure that the information is classified only for as long as is necessary and that declassification programs make sound decisions.

The second challenge is the “accumulation vs preservation” paradox: On the one hand, technology is making it possible to gather greater and greater amounts of information.

The flip side is that, while the amount of information available is ballooning, it has become dramatically more difficult to keep that information intact and available.

Consider that in 1953, U.S. Archivist Wayne Grover lamented, “It is almost inconceivable that the federal government, in the 22 years from 1930 to 1952, should have created more than seven times as many records as it did during its previous 155 years of history."

I wonder what he would say if he could know that today we hold 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; miles of film and videotape; and more that 100 terabytes of electronic records.

And the trend is definitely towards ever-growing amounts of electronic records: we house 20 million e-mails from the Clinton Administration. The George W. Bush administration total is 240 million.  And this is only about 2 to 3 percent of the records created by federal departments and agencies!

But the true test is accessing these records in the future. The clay tablets from ancient Sumeria can still be seen today, the Magna Carta––on loan to us and written on parchment––is perfectly readable, and paper correspondence from the Renaissance is still in good condition.  

But, as we all know, books printed on modern acidic paper are turning to dust and videotapes deteriorate much more quickly than does traditional movie film.  The floppies of our recent past are all but useless. What is the shelf-life of an 8-track tape? Can anybody here remember WordPerfect 4.2? FoxPro? Netscape Navigator?   What’s going to happen to all those facebook posts, blogger entries, and your iPhone photos?  We are living in an age where everything is saved but very little is preserved.

There is also obsolescence within an application, which is sometimes more troubling––for example, not being able to open older Adobe or Word documents with an Adobe or Microsoft product. 

For state and local agencies in particular, preserving the rapidly changing forms of information is not only difficult, but expensive. I’m sure legislators you work with, who are trying to close huge gaps in the budget, aren’t very sympathetic to appeals for funding for new software and hardware and IT services.

At the National Archives we’re trying to deal with this dilemma in two ways. We have a kind of Museum of Obsolete Technology at one of our facilities.  Here you’ll find a recording device that uses coils of thin steel wire instead of tape. There are 70,000 18-inch glass discs—each with two hours of enemy radio broadcasts from World War II. They play on a Memovox. There are push-pull movie soundtracks —1800 reels. There are a quarter million optical discs—the cutting edge technology of the 1980s—that depend on software and hardware no longer on the market.

We’ve also launched one of the most challenging projects in our history—the creation of the Electronic Records Archives—or ERA. We’re developing ways to preserve and provide access over time to the electronic records created by federal agencies. I’ll say more about the ERA and the role it can play in state and local archives, in a moment.

The third challenge is what I call the new technologies vs old policies paradox. We all know how quickly technology can change. For example, social media is critically important today, but it developed so quickly that I wouldn’t have mentioned it had I spoken to you even five years ago.

Laws, regulations, and of course funding levels change much more slowly. I certainly see that in Washington, and I’m sure it’s true in state capitols, too. The result is shrinking budgets and outmoded rules.

These three paradoxes are challenges we all face. At the Archives, we are working to resolve these dilemmas and respond to the other demands of the 21st century by launching an agency-wide transformation process.

This transformation effort began about a year ago, with the Archivist chartering a staff group charged with looking for ways to improve our effectiveness and efficiency as an agency.  I was the chair of that group, and I can tell you that his guidance was bold.  He told us he wanted dramatic, not incremental change, and that there were no sacred cows.  He also told us he wanted this to be a staff driven effort, so we used social media tools to obtain— and truly incorporate—staff input throughout the process.  

The outcome of this first effort was the identification of six transformational outcomes that we aspire to, and a proposed restructuring of the agency to facilitate achieving those outcomes.  Later groups further refined our work, and, this is especially important, developed a set of shared values needed to achieve the transformation.  Again, this was a staff driven activity.

Our transformation plan carefully lays out where our reorganization of NARA is going—we’re going to minimize redundancies, streamline decision-making, and lay the foundation for a very different way of doing business. In particular, the transformation will make it easier for our staff to provide better services to our customers.

The six transformation outcomes, or pillars, I spoke of are:  

  • One NARA: Working as one NARA, not just as component parts.
  • Out in Front: Embracing the primacy of electronic information in all facets of our work and positioning NARA to lead accordingly.
  • An Agency of Leaders: Fostering a culture of leadership, not just as a position but as the way we all conduct our work, regardless of grade or position in the organization.
  • A Great Place to Work: making NARA a great place to work through trust and empowerment of all of our people, the agency’s most vital resource.
  • Customer-driven: Creating structures and processes to allow our staff to more effectively meet the needs of our customers.
  • An Open NARA: Opening our organizational boundaries to learn from others, both internally and externally.

In a few weeks we will complete our reorganization, but I want to emphasize that reorganization is NOT transformation.  At the heart of transformation is culture change, and we know that does not happen overnight – most experts say to expect a three to five year timeframe.   We are committed to sticking with this process.

The most important feature of this transformation is its organizing concept—to put customers at the center of everything we do, allowing us to better provide access to records in a more open government.  One example of how seriously we take this is that we plan to establish councils made up of customers— like you—to advise us on issues and give us feedback on our service.  Not just one time, but continuously. 

That means that the transformation will always be very much a work in progress, drawing on the continuing input of the National Archives staff and our customers.

Putting customers at the center also means that, throughout NARA, we’ve embraced social media as a means to reach out to them, to open a dialogue, and to serve as a force multiplier.
We now have 34 Facebook pages for varying interests and audiences.  Some deal with particular record groups and periods in history, some with archival science. There are features about interesting historical events that are documented in our holdings, and there are news and features from the Archives. The Presidential libraries, several regional archives, the Federal Register, and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission all have their own Facebook pages. 

We are up on Flickr—with some 227,000 views, and we are on YouTube.

We solicited public input in the development of our Open Government plan by using IdeaScale, an online discussion and collaboration tool.

We have 11 blogs, including one by the Archivist, that draw an audience of 7,000 people every week.

Last month we welcomed our first Wikipedian in Residence, one of only a handful in the world.  He’s working full time to use Wikipedia, and the Wikipedia community, to make our content more available to the public.

And, something I’m very excited about— we are developing a mobile app that will enable researchers to use a smartphone to take a photo of a document, add descriptions and tags, and upload the photo and data directly into our catalog – think of the possibilities that can be achieved by this sort of crowd-sourcing.

I hope the programs and approaches I’ve just described, can offer some useful examples to you as you take on our common 21st century challenges.

There are some other ways that National Archives programs can help state and local information managers and archivists.

I mentioned the Electronic Records Archives project, which moves from development to the full operational stage this fall. Although ERA is primarily an archive for “born-digital” electronic Federal records, it also has the capability to preserve and make available electronic data produced by scanning projects that are digitizing Federal records. It will make these records available through our Online Public Access Interface.

Unfortunately, as we meet here today, we know that ERA is not as useful to state and local organizations as we hope it will be in the future. In its current version, it is based on proprietary software, which means we can’t share all of it with you. That’s why we want to make sure that the next generation of ERA is built in a way that aspects of the system can be used by state and local government using techniques such as open source tools.

In the meantime, we are learning lessons from ERA on long-term storage and retrieval of large quantities of electronic documents.

One of those lessons is that we needed to create separate elements of ERA based on the kinds of records stored and how they will be used.  As a result, the National Archives has four ERA elements today: one for congressional records; one for presidential records; one for federal records; and one for classified records.  For state and local institutions, this suggests you shouldn't plan on a one-size-fits-all system either. Instead, consider modifying your approach based on the origins and uses of the records.  

In addition, we have established a new unit charged with applied research with staying on —and helping to create—the cutting edge of research into electronic information and records preservation.  It is turning that research into tools that all archivists can use, and we’re working to make those tools available to you.

Let me also mention one other specific way the National Archives works with you. I know many of you are concerned about funding for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) which supports projects by your organizations that promote the preservation and use of America's documentary heritage.

Thank you for your advocacy for NHPRC. Unfortunately, this not an easy time for any federal agency, and it is a particularly tough time for agencies that award grants.  As you know, the House of Representatives recently cut the NHPRC appropriation down to $1 million for fiscal year 2012.  This is not a new challenge for us, but it will be an even tougher issue to resolve given the current tough financial climate.

We don't like it, you don't like it.  And it probably does not make you feel better for me to say that that at least it is not zero.  But in the current climate, it very well could have been zero.  And that is a very important point to keep in mind as the rest of the Fiscal Year 2012 appropriations process plays out. 

It is not zero because your voices have been heard.  The pressure on our supporters on the House Appropriations Committee to simply eliminate funding for programs has never been greater, but, because of you, we are hanging in there and working for a better outcome at the end of the process.  

I want to close by quoting a great American who knew nothing about 21st century archives, but who understood very well why our profession is so special. President Franklin Roosevelt, in dedicating the FDR Library in Hyde Park, said:

To bring together the records of the past and to house them in buildings where they will be preserved for the use of men and women in the future, a Nation must believe in three things. It must believe in the past. It must believe in the future. It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its own people so to learn from the past that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future.

I look forward to working with all of you in my new role to ensure all levels of government keep learning from the past so they can create a great future.

Thank you.

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