If You Build It, They Will Come

For several years we have discussed the possibility of an Innovation Hub as a place dedicated to incubating, accelerating, and promoting innovative projects that staff could work on with the public. We envisioned students working with our volunteers to learn about handwritten documents and to try transcribing them for our catalog. We talked about holding scanathons and hackathons with local chapters of coders and hosting Wikipedian meetings throughout the year.

Our Innovation Hub Coordinator, Dina Herbert, on opening day.

Our Innovation Hub Coordinator, Dina Herbert, on opening day.

The Innovation Hub is open.  Located on the first floor of the National Archives building in Washington, D.C., the Hub has two sections: a meeting area, and a citizen scanning room where researchers can scan our records with state-of-the-art equipment at no cost as long as they also contribute a copy of their digital scans for our online catalog.

Staff preparing for first group in the Hub.

Staff preparing for first group in the Hub.

The Hub is already buzzing with activity. Our first week, we hosted the Primarily Teaching group of educators, who scanned almost 100 records, equaling 432 pages, on Chinese immigration to be included in our online DocsTeach system, the online tool for teaching with documents from the National Archives, and our Catalog. We have planned transcription parties as well as hosting Wikipedian meetings as well.

Here is our very first scan coming from the Hub: https://catalog.archives.gov/id/20014029 (the Civil War Compiled Military Service Record of William E. Strong, which even has his picture at the end).

Perhaps you would like to transcribe it? It’s easy to log in and start transcribing.


Original record: “Victory Waits On Your Fingers – Keep ‘Em Flying Miss U.S.A.” National Archives Identifier 515979


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25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. Signed on July 26, 1990 by President George H.W. Bush, the ADA was the world’s first comprehensive civil rights law for people with disabilities.

The National Archives holds many records that relate to American citizens with disabilities. In addition to the historic legislation itself, the holdings of our Presidential Libraries contain personal letters and stories that provide insight into disability history.

This Braille letter, for example, was written by a 13 year old boy to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, offering campaign advice in the fall of 1956:

Letter from John Beaulieu to President Dwight D. Eisenhower in Braille

Letter from John Beaulieu to President Dwight D. Eisenhower in Braille, National Archives Identifier 594353

As part of the 25th anniversary commemoration, the National Archives and Presidential Libraries participated in the collaborative #DisabilityStories initiative on Twitter. We were pleased to join the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, the Kennedy Center’s Office of VSA and Accessibility, and others who took part in this international conversation.

We joined #DisabilityStories on Twitter from @Bush41Library, @FDRLibrary, @OurPresidents, and @USNatArchives. Our archivists were on hand to answer questions from the public about FDR’s personal disability stories, and about George Bush’s involvement in the creation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  The Bush Library also invited Lex Frieden to join them in their Twitter chat session. Frieden is an advocate for people with disabilities who worked closely with President Bush to develop and enact the ADA.  In 2014, Mr. Frieden donated his private collection of artifacts related to the disabilities right movement to the Bush Library.  Frieden answered questions on Twitter alongside the Bush Library, bringing another important voice to #DisabilityStories.

This initiative was designed to spark reflection and connections, encouraging people with disabilities to share their own stories and perspectives. On the day of the chat, more than 8,000 tweets were sent as part of this conversation.

While we shared many documents, photos and stories of disabilities found in our records, we also shared personal stories from our staff, including a wonderful piece by Danica Rice, an archives technician currently working at the National Archives at Seattle.

Disability stories are powerful, and play an important role in telling the story of our American history and culture. We welcome the opportunity to share our information, experiences, and pieces of our history with the world as we celebrate this landmark legislation.

More resources and information can be found on our website.

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What’s in Your Attic?

Recently I came across a story about an archives in a box of Corn Flakes. A woman in Tennessee had stored some 400 letters written by former German prisoners-of-war who had lived in camp near the state’s southern border. After the war was over, many of the POWs wrote to the people in the community, often addressing the Americans as family, such as “aunt” or “uncle,” asking for help, and sharing the stories of their lives.

The family donated the letters to Lipscomb University in Nashville, and through a small re-grant from the Tennessee Historical Records Advisory Board made possible through the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), they are being transcribed, translated, and made available in digital form online. See the ABC News story here.

Photo courtesy of Kristi Jones/Lipscomb University and ABC news

Photo courtesy of Kristi Jones/Lipscomb University and ABC news

I am constantly surprised at what turns up from work supported by the National Archives through the NHPRC. Not just the small gems that turn up through the state boards, but large-scale projects as well—from the creation of municipal archives in cities like Boston, Seattle, and San Antonio to the publication of the papers of 16 U.S. Presidents on microfilm, print, and online editions. And it has enabled the National Archives to fund professional development for archives and historical editors and in research and development in electronic records management, Encoded Archival Description, and much more.

In turn, this investment helps historians write new histories—including several Pulitzer Prize books; teachers introduce primary source materials in the classroom; and family historians and local historical societies discover lost treasures.

As Chair of the Commission, I get to see first-hand how this work complements the mission of the National Archives. Through a small, but catalytic, grants program we make access happen and help tell the American story in so many different ways.

Over the past year, we have been engaged in a Strategic Planning process and have developed a preliminary framework of goals for the future. I invite you to take a look at a short presentation on NARA’s YouTube channel. And to read the preliminary framework at our Annotation blog.

Briefly put, the framework looks for the Commission to make access happen; to encourage people to become Citizen Archivists and engage directly in archives; and to enable the National Archives to provide leadership opportunities.

The Plan is open for discussion. We have scheduled webinars, are holding sessions at national conferences, and welcome your input. We’re listening. We want your ideas.

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What’s New in the National Archives Catalog: British Photographs of World War I

As part of our efforts to digitize photographic and moving image records related to World War I and World War II, we recently digitized a series of British Photographs from World War I (1914-1918) and made them available in our online catalog.

This series of photographs taken by British photographers depicts the military activities and personnel of several nations during World War I, and includes subjects such as major military campaigns of the war showing the marching of troops, living conditions in the trenches, transportation and communication problems, food supply movement, human misery behind battlefield experiences, as well as the homefront commitment.

These public domain records are being digitized through a gift to the National Archives Trust Fund with the goal of making them more accessible for everyone to use, from teachers and local community groups, to museums and filmmakers.

Some highlights include:

A.S.C. Women at Work

A.S.C. Women at Work. National Archives Identifier 16577208

The irrepressible Australians at Anzac. An Australian bringing in a wounded comrade to hospital, circa 1915

The irrepressible Australians at Anzac. An Australian bringing in a wounded comrade to hospital, circa 1915. National Archives Identifier 533106

King George of England visits American Cemetery near St. Quentin Canal, France

King George of England visits American Cemetery near St. Quentin Canal, France. National Archives Identifier 16576501

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Paying Homage to Margaret Cross Norton

Last week I had an opportunity to visit with Dave Joens and his staff at the Illinois State Archives—the first AOTUS to visit since Wayne Grover was there in 1952.  Dave and I were able to reenact the original photo op at the same catalogue drawer!

Archives-Norton 1953


Dave Joens and AOTUS























Margaret Cross Norton was the first State Archivist of Illinois from 1922 until 1957.  She was a co-founder of the Society of American Archivists, served in SAA leadership roles for many years, and edited American Archivist from 1946 to 1949.  Her “Catalog Rules: Series for Archives Material” trained generations of archivists.

She fought the good fight distinguishing archives from libraries and historical societies:

“One might conclude…that the ideal archivist is a scholar sitting in a remote ivory tower safeguarding records of interest only to the historian.  In reality the archivist is at the very heart of his government and the archival establishment is a vital cog in its governmental machinery.  Archives are legal records the loss of which might cause serious loss to citizens or the government.”

In the mid-1950s, Grover was working on “The Archivist’s Credo” (later Code) and sent drafts out for review.  Our records are rich with the correspondence between Norton and Grover. She challenges language and basic principles, addresses the non-partisan nature of government archives, and makes it clear that archivists are hired to process and serve archives and not to research their own scholarship!

An added general comment to the draft:

“Probably this also does not belong in the code, but I would say that the most important single need for the archivist is for a strong sense of order.  Disorder must worry him.  I don’t think enough emphasis has been placed upon this in the training of archivists.”

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Meeting the Government’s Email Challenge

Free and equal access to government records is essential to this country’s democracy.  Citizens have the right to see, examine, and learn from the records that guarantee their rights, document government actions, and tell the story of the nation. As Archivist of the United States, it is my job to make sure we identify, save, and make available the permanently valuable records of the U.S. Government. It’s also my job to instruct federal agencies on how to make this “what to keep” decision for records ranging from memos written on old onion-skin paper and stored in filing cabinets to electronic records, including email. This is especially important as the volume of electronic records continues to grow.

What should be saved? Not all or even most federal records make the cut as permanent records. Literally billions of government email records are created each year.  Some are clearly worth saving as permanent records in the National Archives. Many others, which document basic business and administrative activities, are needed for some period of time before they can be deleted.  And still others, such as lunch plans and routine notifications of meetings, can be deleted immediately.

Records Arriving at the National Archives Building, 1935. National Archives Identifier 7820503

The responsibility – and honor – of preserving and providing access to historical federal records rests with the National Archives. However, this work begins within the walls of each federal agency, supported by the National Archives.  Our experts develop guidance, recommendations, and solutions to address the recordkeeping challenge. We provide extensive training and direct counsel for records managers at all federal agencies.

Recently our Records Management leaders met with all agency recordkeeping officials to discuss their responsibilities and how they can best meet the challenges of managing email records. By some estimates, over 100 billion emails are sent and received by the private sector every day; we estimate that the government produces over 40 billion emails a year.

Until recently, the best approach was for each federal employee to decide which of their emails were valuable and then to print out and file these emails manually, or save them electronically. This is the same thing they are supposed to do with all other records they create or receive.  The reality, however, is that few people have the time or expertise to sort and file each and every email consistently, numerous times a day.

For this reason, the National Archives has asked the software industry to create automated systems, which take personal decision making out of the process, to capture electronic records and separate the permanent from the temporary.  In the meantime, our staff has created an approach for email management called Capstone. Under Capstone, an agency designates a number of senior officials as Capstone officials, and saves all of their email as permanent records.  All other agency employees’ emails are viewed as temporary and are saved for an appropriate period of time. We’re now using Capstone at the National Archives and will base our guidance on real-world experiences.

Since 2011, we have worked closely with the White House to require all agencies to adopt Capstone or a comparable approach for managing emails by 2016. Congress has also helped by passing new amendments to the Federal Records Act and the Presidential Records Act late last year to modernize these recordkeeping statutes. Most notably, the law now requires officials who use a non-official email account (which only should be done as a last resort) to copy or forward those emails into their official account within 20 days, or be subject to disciplinary action.

The challenge of electronic recordkeeping is not unique to the federal government; universities, corporations, and privately owned businesses all wrestle with similar issues.  But the challenges are clear:  the volume of electronic records being created is enormous; providing access to these records is difficult and critical; and forecasting what will be “historically important” requires a blend of art and science. These are the challenges and opportunities that compel records and information management professionals. The National Archives is an essential resource to other agencies – we provide training, guidance, and structure for modernizing and reforming records management.  Federal agencies must follow our lead to ensure that our National Treasures – in paper and electronic form – are saved for future generations.


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Saying Thanks

Since 1985, the first week of May has been set aside to honor the men and women who serve our nation as Federal, state, county, and local government employees. It is also the time when I host the Archivist Awards ceremony at the National Archives to recognize the outstanding achievements of our staff in the past year.  We also recognize long term service—this year two folks with 45 years of service!   While the event is held in our College Park (MD) facility, this year senior executives traveled to eight of our facilities outside of the Washington area to celebrate with award recipients.  If cloning were possible, I would have been at all of our sites!

In his 2015 Pubic Service Recognition Week Proclamation, President Obama said:

“A Government of, by, and for the people is sustained only through hard work and extraordinary sacrifice of millions of citizens willing to serve the country they love.  From the moment an early band of patriots first came together to secure the blessings of liberty for all, public servants have worked to create a more perfect Union.  Today—in every city and every town—American can proudly carry forward this tradition of service, which has built our Nation and strengthened its promise.  This week, we recognize all those who dedicate their lives to this noble pursuit, and we celebrate the tremendous difference they make every day.”

I believe every week is Public Service Recognition Week, and each year I look forward to this ceremony when I get to personally thank those who have accomplished so much. Check out the range of activities in the Archivist’s Awards Program.  I am fortunate to work with the most dedicated group of people who take tremendous pride in the work they do.  And I take tremendous pride in them.

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What’s New in the National Archives Catalog: WWI Photographs

The National Archives recently embarked upon a large scale digitization project, focused on photographic and moving image records related to World War I and World War II. These public domain records are being digitized through a gift to the National Archives Trust Fund with the goal of making them more accessible for everyone to use, from teachers and local community groups, to museums and filmmakers.

Recently digitized and now available in our online catalog is a fascinating series of World War I photographs, the American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs, 1917-1918.

This series contains photographs obtained from the U.S. Army Signal Corps, Federal and State government agencies, as well as private sources, such as the American Red Cross and the Central News and Photo Service. The photos depict the unity of the nation and how overwhelming the war effort was, including pictures of public gatherings, peace demonstrations, parades, and activities of libraries, hospitals and first aid stations.

Some highlights include:

Albert Sterner painting war posters for the Government. National Archives Identifier 533471
Albert Sterner painting war posters for the government

Returning from a U-Boat Scouting Party. National Archives Identifier 533474
Returning from a U-Boat Scouting Party.

African-American regiment arrives home from France. New York’s famous 369th (old 15th) Infantry troops arrive in Hoboken, NJ. National Archives Identifier 533528
African-American regiment arrives home from France

Airplanes-Radio equipment- This is what an airman wears when he used the wireless telephone. National Archives Identifier 17341083
Airplanes-Radio equipment- This is what an airman wears when he used the wireless telephone.

Parade of Famous 369th Infantry on Fifth Avenue New York City. Colonel “Bill” Hayward’s famous “Hell Fighters” of the 369th Infantry march by crowds at the New York Public Library 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. National Archives Identifier 533495
Parade of Famous 369th Infantry on Fifth Avenue New York City


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Thomas Jefferson Prize for Founders Online

On Saturday, wearing my Chair of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission hat, I accepted the Thomas Jefferson Prize from the Society for History in the Federal Government for the NHPRC in creating Founders Online. This is a particularly meaningful award because of the caliber of the professional community represented among the Society. There was great joy in “my house” when we received the good news!

In accepting the award on behalf of NHPRC, I said:

As the steward of Federal Government records, the National Archives has provided leadership in the archives and records management field for over 75 years. As far back as 1939, the American Archivist summed up the central challenge: “Just as librarians promote the use of books, and as teachers defend before the public the value of education, so archivists have as part of their duty to give stimulus and guidance to the use of archives, and to their use not by the few but by the many.”

I take that as our biggest challenge and opportunity. How do we ensure that as many people as possible can find and use the historical records held not only by the National Archives but by the nation’s archives?

One way is to continue opening our doors to the public. Every day I am lucky to witness the crowds of people in the Rotunda of the National Archives lined up to see the Charters of Freedom and other documents. More than 9,000 people, for example, came by to see the Emancipation Proclamation on the 150th anniversary of its signing. And all across the country in our many facilities, ordinary citizens get to examine original records in their family history journeys, researchers use originals to track down evidence, and hold our government accountable for its actions.

But what about the many who cannot come to Washington, DC or who are searching for records far from home?

In a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, Walter Isaacson describes the “tingling sensation” people feel in the company of the original documents, but he also describes the power of providing access to the many through digitization and online publishing “when millions of curious people, with new technologies in hand, get to dive into the papers of historical figures.” And he then he holds up our Founders Online as a model for thinking about the whole question of access.

Founders Online really is a remarkable achievement built out of the tireless work of many. From the print publication of the very first volume of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson to decades of collecting, transcribing, annotating and publishing the papers of Franklin, Washington, Adams, Hamilton, and Madison. The print editions alone make access happen.

But through the leadership of our National Historical Publications and Records Commission and with our partners at the Rotunda project at the University of Virginia, we realized that not only could we broaden the audience for these records by making them freely available online, we could also improve and deepen that use through the ability to search across the papers of six Founders, including early access to currently unpublished letters.

The hybrid result is this massive database—currently at 167,000 separate documents—that changed fundamentally how people can find and use these historical records. Gone are the days when a search might take hours—or days or weeks—across multi-volume sets and indexes. Now scholars and students and lawyers and genealogists and enthusiasts for the history of federal government, now faceted searches pull up results in the blink of an eye. Speed and accuracy increased, and the capacity for analysis has improved.

And we are seeing great results. Since its launch in June 2013, over 1 million people have visited Founders Online. We regularly get emails from researchers excited by the results and engaged in improving the site.

The White House has featured the site twice on its blog since the launch, and the site is regularly cited on Facebook, twitter, and other social media. National Journal used the site to identify Thomas Jefferson’s activities as a brewer of beer. The New York Times’ Art and Culture blog announced the site with the headline: “Founding Fathers Go Electric.”

But here’s what really excites me. Educators of all kinds at all levels are using Founders Online in the classroom. University of Virginia historian Peter Onuf used Founders Online last spring to teach his first massive, open online course (MOOC) entitled, “The Age of Jefferson,” attended by several thousand participants. And one high school history teacher writes, “This resource is breathtaking in its scope and value. I already have students accessing it for their class projects. It defies description. Powerful, powerful, resource.”

The education staff at the National Archives has linked the material to facsimiles on our www.DocsTeach.org site for teachers. The National Endowment for the Humanities includes it on its EDSITEment webpages. The National Humanities Center in Research Triangle, NC offers faculty webinars and interactive lesson plans using this new resource exclusively. Monticello also uses Founders Online for some of its online lesson plans.

At least one course at Smith College requires students to investigate Founders Online. The site is also on the reading list for courses at George Mason, Brandeis, Furman, and more.

Scholars are beginning to make use of the site. “Citations have appeared in The American Historical Review, Constitutional Commentary, and The Journal of Church and State, among other journals.

New books that use Founders Online include The True Geography of Our Country: Jefferson’s Cartographic Vision (UVA Press), Thomas Jefferson’s Philosophy of Education: A Utopian Dream (Routledge), and Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships That Built America (Simon and Schuster). Scholars such as Ron Chernow, author of bios of Washington and Hamilton and Jill Lepore on Benjamin Franklin’s sister Jane have spoken out about the value of combining the “tingling sensation” of seeing the original documents but also of the enhancements of online access.

I, like Walter Isaacson, “…hope that archives will remain inspiring places to visit and to meet people with like-minded passions. They can blend the virtual world and physical space to become 21st-century museums for the mind.”

With more than 12 billion pieces of paper and 42 million photographs—and a goal of digitizing everything—the National Archives will long blend the physical and virtual worlds. And I am also convinced that “tingling sensation” that can be achieved in seeing for the first time a piece of history through Founders Online.

I’ll close with a well known citation from Mr. Jefferson. In a 1791 letter to the editor for the first collection of the nation’s historical records, Jefferson wrote, “Let us save what remains; not by vaults and locks which fence them from the public eye and use . . . . but by such multiplication of copies, as shall place them beyond the reach of accident.”

Jefferson, and the other Founders of the nation, readily understood that the value of historical records lies not primarily in the paper artifacts, but in the ideas embodied within the words, and the public’s ability to understand and use those records. It is those ideas that give us that tingling sensation in the museums for the mind.

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What’s New in the National Archives Catalog: Photographs from the Battle of the Bulge

The National Archives’ Strategic Plan includes the bold initiative to digitize our analog records and make them available for online public access.

Our new digitization strategy outlines the many approaches we will use to achieve this goal, and I am proud share with you the results of some of our recent digitization work.

Recently digitized by staff in the National Archives Still Picture Branch, these stunning color photographs from the Battle of the Bulge were taken by the U.S. Army Signal Corps in St. Vith, Belgium. The photos depict the wreckage in St. Vith in the days after units of the 7th Armored Division liberated the town in January, 1945.

Wreckage in St. Vith Belgium
Wreckage in St. Vith, Belgium. National Archives Identifier 16730732

Snowsuited Soldiers Walk through the Snow Covered Streets of St. Vith, Belgium
Snowsuited Soldiers Walk through the Snow Covered Streets of St. Vith, Belgium. National Archives Identifier 16730733


American Soldiers Man a Dug-In Mortar Emplacement near St. Vith, Belgium
American Soldiers Man a Dug-In Mortar Emplacement near St. Vith, Belgium. National Archives Identifier 16730734

M-4 Sherman Tanks Lined up in a Snow Covered Field, near St. Vith, Belgium
M-4 Sherman Tanks Lined up in a Snow Covered Field, near St. Vith, Belgium. National Archives Identifier 16730735

Yanks Trudge through Snow from Humpange,Belgium to St. Vith

Yanks Trudge through Snow from Humpange,Belgium to St. Vith. National Archives Identifier 16730736

I will be featuring more digitization projects in upcoming blog posts.

More photos from the Battle of the Bulge are featured on Today’s Document Tumblr, and you can read more about “The Bloodiest Battle” in Prologue Magazine.

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