Introducing SNAC

When I first learned of the Social Networks and Archival Context (SNAC) Project, I knew that we had to be involved and assume some leadership. Why? Because the driving force of SNAC is collaboration within the archival and library communities to improve discovery and access to archival materials. I am a huge proponent for collaboration and access – these are the central concepts that we have been incorporating into our strategic direction at NARA.

SNAC homepage

The National Archives has been a key partner with the SNAC project. Early on, we recognized the benefits and opportunities of the Cooperative, both for NARA and the international archival community. We were proud to recently announce the launch of the Pilot Phase of the project.  The two-year pilot phase of the Cooperative is generously funded by a $1 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to the University of Virginia. We will work with our Cooperative partners, the University of Virginia, and the California Digital Library, as well as a cross-section of U.S. archives, libraries, and museums.  This phase of the Cooperative has both social and technological objectives. The social objectives include developing the administrative structure and developing a shared understanding and governance structure with the inaugural members for how we will set best practices for content input and maintenance, provide input into the development of the editing user interface, and maintain the description and access data.  The primary technological objective will be transforming the SNAC prototype research tool into a platform that will support ongoing building and maintenance of the SNAC description and access data.

One of the great strengths of SNAC is the way that biographical and historical data can be used to provide researchers with convenient, integrated access to historical collections held by archives and libraries all over the world. This linking of people, their relationships, and the records that document their lives and work provides powerful research avenues — and some unexpected surprises.   For example, take a look at the record for the great jazz musician, Lionel Hampton.

SNAC Lionel Hampton record

Under “Archival Collections” you’ll see a list of links to materials related to his work as a musician, as well as a link to the finding aid for the Lionel Hampton Papers held at the University of Idaho. And you’ll also find something about him that you may not expect, a link to the National Archives Catalog and the record for the collection of sound recordings of meetings and telephone conversations from the Nixon administration. From our Catalog, you can read the tape log for February 19, 1971, which records that Hampton met with Nixon at the White House and that they discussed Hampton’s upcoming tour of Eastern Europe, his band, and his support for the President.  The technology and data standards that SNAC uses allows this rich, unprecedented access not only across archival collections, but into the social and biographical context of the people documented in these materials.

So I invite you to explore the resources available in the SNAC Research Tool. Whether you browse one of the featured individuals or do a specific search, you will find connections and resources about historical figures you may never have known about.  You may find something really special, as I did when I found this record, which links to my little-known correspondence with several Presidents!

SNAC David Ferriero record

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Historical Cats

We may have just missed #MuseumCats day, but you might still enjoy some stories of historic felines in our holdings. We recently received feedback on our website survey asking for historical photos of cats in the National Archives. I was reminded of the fact that when Robert Connor, the First Archivist, was assessing the records situation in Washington, he came across the records in one “depository crowded with archives of the Government the most prominent object to one entering the room was the skull of a dead cat protruding from under a pile of valuable records.” (From an editorial entitled, “Our National Archives”, The Nation, February 1931.)

While we obviously don’t want actual cats roaming our stacks, we consulted our online catalog and found this selection of photogenic archival felines:

Daughter of Charles B. Lewis, miner, holding her kitten

Daughter of Charles B. Lewis, miner, holding her kitten, 7/10/1946. National Archives Identifier 540563

A patron of "Sammy's Bowery Follies," a downtown bar, sleeping at his table while the resident cat laps at his beer

A patron of “Sammy’s Bowery Follies,” a downtown bar, sleeping at his table while the resident cat laps at his beer, 12/1947. National Archives Identifier 541905

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s Press Secretary Pamela Turnure

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s Press Secretary, Pamela Turnure, with Caroline Kennedy’s cat, 1/24/1961. National Archives Identifier 12010054

Amy Carter with her cat, Misty Malarky Ying Yang

Amy Carter with her cat, Misty Malarky Ying Yang, 2/3/1978. National Archives Identifier 177850

Photograph of Socks the Cat Perched on the Backseat of a Van, 9/16/1993

Photograph of Socks the Cat Perched on the Backseat of a Van, 9/16/1993. National Archives Identifier 6036906

Military Photographer of the Year Winner 1998 Title: Cat Lady Category, 1/1/1998. National Archives Identifier 6504073

Military Photographer of the Year Winner 1998 Title: Cat Lady Category, 1/1/1998. National Archives Identifier 6504073

Last but not least, you won’t find this picture in our holdings, but do you recognize the young man in this historical cat photo?


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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: (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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