About the National Archives

Keynote address made by Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero at the 6th International Conference on Theory and Practice of Electronic Governance, Albany, NY

October 22, 2012

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?

Let me add my welcomes to those which you have just heard.  It has been a tremendous honor to have been involved in the planning for this important gathering.  A very special welcome to you and I hope you share my excitement and anticipation for the conversations  and sharing of international perspectives on innovations in smart cities, open government, big data, transparency, citizen services, and on and on.

I come to you as this nation’s Archivist, responsible for the records of my country—records that range from the Oaths of Allegiance signed at Valley Forge and the Journals of the Continental Congress to the tweets that are being created in the White House as I speak.

These are the records of the 250 Federal Agencies and the Executive Office of the President.  Records that now number some 12 billion pages (1.5 million trees, 84 times around the globe), 40 million photographs, miles and miles of film and video, and about 500 terabytes of electronic records.

To give you a sense of the growth in electronic records:  we started collecting email during the Ronald Reagan Administration.  We have about 2.5 million email messages from the Reagan and George H.W. Bush Administrations combined.  20 million from the Clinton White House.  And 210 million from the George W. Bush Administration.

My own call to Washington was stimulated by the current Administration’s Open Government crusade.

In his remarks to White House Senior Staff, 21 January 2009, President Obama said:

“The way to make Government responsible is to hold it accountable.  And the way to make Government accountable is to make it transparent so that the American people can know exactly what decisions are being made, how they’re being made, and whether their interests are being well served.”

“Let me say it as simply as I can:  Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this Presidency.”

The reason the National Archives exists is to ensure that the American people can hold their government accountable—that they can know exactly what decisions are being made, how they are being made, and whether their interests are well served.  As Thomas Jefferson said “Information is the currency of democracy.”

In that same meeting with his senior staff, the President went on to say:

“Our commitment to openness means more than simply informing the American people about how decision are made.  It means recognizing that Government does not have all the answers, and that public officials need to draw on what citizens know. 

“And that’s why, as of today, I’m directing members of my administration to find new ways of tapping the knowledge and experience of ordinary Americans—scientists and civic leaders, educators and entrepreneurs—because the way to solve the problems of our time…is by involving the American people in shaping the policies that affect their lives.’’

These themes of transparency, collaboration, and participation form the basis of the President’s Open Government Directive issued early in 2010.  In it he proclaims:

“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.”

As the new Archivist I quickly realized the role my agency could and should play in supporting these themes and this directive. In May 2010. I spoke to a conference of records administrators about the importance of good records management in fulfilling this vision of Open Government and coined the phrase, “good records management is the backbone of Open Government.”

With lots of support and guidance from lots of people in the White House, the Open Government stakeholder groups, and the National Archives staff and the personal attention of Cass Sunstein, then administrator of the the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the President, himself, grasped the importance of the records of the government in the supporting his Directive. 

In November 2011, the President issued his Memorandum on Managing Government Records in which he said:

“When records are well managed, agencies can use them to assess the impact of programs, to reduce redundant efforts, to save money, and to share knowledge within and across their organizations.  In these ways, proper records management is the backbone of open Government.”

It’s always nice to see your boss repeating your words!

The Memorandum began an executive branch wide effort to reform records management policies and practices and required each agency to:

  • Identify a senior official responsible for records
  • Provide plans for improving or maintaining its records management program, especially electronic records; and
  • Suggest obstacles to sound, cost effective management policies and practices

Finally, the Memorandum mandates that the Director of the Office of Management and Budget and I issue a Records Management Directive to the Federal Agencies which focuses on:

  • Creating a Government wide records management framework that is more efficient and cost effective.
  • Promoting records management policies and practices that enhance the capability of agencies to fulfill their statutory missions
  • Maintaining accountability through documentation of agency actions
  • Increasing open Government and appropriate access to Government records
  • Supporting agency compliance with applicable legal requirements related to the preservation of information relevant to litigation; and
  • Transitioning from paper-based records management to electronic records management where feasible

That directive was issued to the Agencies by me and the Director of OMB on August 24.   The directive outlines two sets of responsibilities—those of the Federal Agencies and those of the National Archives, the Office of Personnel Management, and the Office of Management and Budget in the support of the Agencies compliance.

Federal agencies must:

  • Manage all permanent electronic records in an electronic format by 31 December 2019 and must have plans to do so by 31 December 2013.
  • Manage both permanent and temporary email records in an accessible electronic format by 31 December 2016.
  • Once again, designate a Senior Agency Official or SAO to oversee a review of their records management program.  The SAO is a senior official at the Assistant Secretary level who has direct responsibility for ensuring that the department or agency efficiently and appropriately complies with all applicable records management statues, regulations, and National Archives policy, and the requirements of the Directive.
  • Ensure that permanent records older than 30 years are identified for transfer and reported to the National Archives by the end of 2013.   
  • Have records management training in place for appropriate staff by 31 December 2014 and obtain National Archives certification for that training.
  • Ensure that all existing paper and other-non electronic records have records schedules which have been submitted to the National Archives by the end of 2016.

To support these requirements, the National Archives has committed to:

  • Revising transfer guidance for permanent electronic records including metadata requirements by the end of 2103.
  • Creating new guidance for managing, disposing, and transferring email.
  • Investigating and stimulating applied research in automated technologies to reduce the burden of records management responsibilities.  We will work closely with the Federal Chief Information Officers Council and the Federal Records Council and private industry to produce economically viable automated records management solutions.
  • Embedding records management requirements into cloud architectures and other Federal IT systems and commercially-available products. 
  • Evaluating the feasibility for secure “data at rest” storage and management services for Federal agency-owned electronic records.  By the end of 2013 we will determine the feasibility of establishing a secure cloud-based service to store and manage unclassified electronic records on behalf of the agencies.
  • Overhauling the General Records Schedules to reduce the need for unique records schedules. 
  • Convening the first of periodic meetings of all Senior Agency Officils to discuss progress in implementation.
  • Developing a government-wide analytical tool to evaluate the effectiveness of records management programs.
  • Creating a community of interest to solve records management challenges.  This community of interest will include leaders from information technology, legal counsel, and the records management arenas; and, finally
  • Establishing a formal records management occupational series to elevate records management roles, responsibilities, and skill sets for agency records officers and other records professionals.  You may be surprised to learn, as I was, that this Government Federal occupational series has no such thing as a records manager.  The result is that the task is often assigned to a junior clerical position, not well trained, not their prime responsibility, and high turnover.

This is an historic moment for the National Archives and the Federal Agency records community.  It has been some time, since the Harry Truman administration of the late 40’s, that a President has taken an interest in records management.  It is also an exciting time—to envision a future where the records of this country are created, captured, and preserved in digital format for perpetuity. 

My task is to ensure that future generations have the ability to hold their government accountable and learn from their history using the electronic records that are being created today.  

The Administration’s commitment to transparency and open government evidenced itself in another way with the issuance in late December of 2009 or an Executive Order on Classified National Security Information which created, within the National Archives, the National Declassification Center—NDC. 

The Center’s mission is to streamline declassification processes, facility quality-assurance measures, and implement standardized training regarding the declassification of records determined to have permanent historical value.  The implicit mandate in the Executive Order is the review of some 370m pages of classified documents going back to World War I for declassification decisions. 

And following the collaboration and participation themes of the Open Government Directive this work is to be done with input from the general public that take into account the degree of researcher interest. 
The only two criteria by which documents can remain classified:  weapons of mass destruction and national security.   And this work must be completed by the end of calendar year 2013.
Public input has been solicited (and continues to be solicited) by public meetings and NDC blog and website features.  I thought you might be interested in a high level snapshot of public interest.  I hosted two public meetings in Washington and the room, in both cases, was evenly split between the records of the Kennedy Assassination and UFOs.

The highest priorities identified bases on other researcher interest inputs:

Department of State General Records and Records of Foreign Service Posts

Records of the U.S. Information Agency

U.S. Navy Ship and Deck Logs

U.S. Army Records of Units in WWII, Korea and Vietnam

And

High level military records from Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of Defense,  and Army and Air Force operational, tactical, and support organizations.

So, how are we doing in this review?

We have assessed more than 90 percent of the backlog.  Quality assurance evaluation and processing declassification have been completed on more than half of that 90 percent.   At this point we are experiencing an 82 percent release rate for those documents which have gone through the entire review process by the agencies which classified them. 

That means that those records are now available to the public.  And they contain such things as:  

The six oldest records, dating back to 1917 and 1918.  These are CIA documents which any secret agent would have killed for, hence their classified status.  Recipes for invisible ink!  One lists chemical and techniques to create an ink for “secret writing.”  Another gives a list of ingredients and at the bottom of the page in large letters, “Do Not Inhale Fumes.” 

Another gives instructions to U.S. postal inspectors on how to detect secret ink.  “There are a number of other methods used by spies and smugglers, according to the skill and education of the criminals, such as placing writings under postage stamps, wrapping messages in medicine capsules and engraving messages…on toe-nails.”  And even one on the old lemon juice trick!  

Records relating to the construction of the Berlin Wall from the Department of State.  Security discussions and planning, reports on the impact of the events surrounding the Berlin Crisis and the deepening of the Cold War.  It includes documents outlining the real-time threat to the legal status and rights of the three Western Powers in Berlin:  Britain, France, and the United States.     

Records relating to the Katyn Forest Massacre.  Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland in September of 1939.  While the Germans began a massacre of Jews and Poles in western occupied Poland, the Red Army arrested and imprisoned thousands of Polish military officers, policemen, and intelligentsia in eastern Poland. 

In 1951, the U.S. House of Representatives established the Select Committee to Conduct an Investigation and Study of the Facts, Evidence, and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre.  Those records from the files of the State and War Departments and extensive witness testimony have been classified since.

Records relating to Civil Disturbances during 1968.  After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in April of 1968 race riots erupted in major cities across the United States.  As a result, President Lyndon Johnson issued a series of Executive Orders and instructions for the deployment of military forces to control the civil disorder and restore law and order in cities like Baltimore, Chicago, Memphis, and Washington, DC.

And, finally, FLYING SAUCERS. 

Yes, we recently declassified an Air Force secret project report.  The Air Force had actually contracted the work out to a Canadian company, Avro Aircraft Limited in Toronto  to construct a disk-shaped craft designed to be a vertical take-off and landing plane capable of reaching a top speed of Mach4, with a ceiling of over 100,000 feet and a range of over 1,000 nautical miles.  This was an Air Force program which existed from the mid 1950’s to sometime in 1961.  Sad to report, after $10m the saucer was barely a hovercraft which lost control if it rose about five feet. 

So, that’s my story of records and transparency and open government—“Releasing all we can, protecting what we must,” as we say at the National Declassification Center.   

In September of 2011, President Obama was reporting to the United Nations General Assembly on the United States National Action Plan for the International Open Government Partnership.  My favorite line from the Plan: 

“The backbone of transparent and accountable government is strong records management that documents the decisions and actions of the Federal Government.” 

Catchy phrase!  These words harkening back to the words of one of the country’s Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in 1789, “Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government…that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.”

Your agenda for the next four days deals with the issues of keeping the people informed and trusting them with their own government. 

I challenge all of you to think carefully about the information people need—how it is created, captured, protected, and made available over time.  Somewhere in that chain you need records managers and archivists.  If your best friend is not now your archivist, reach out!  You’ll find an informed ally.

About the National Archives >

The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
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