No Small Change

The Pew Research Center recently published a report, “The Impact of the Internet on Institutions in the Future,” in which it found that 72 percent of experts agreed with the statement:

By 2020, innovative forms of online cooperation will result in significantly more efficient and responsive governments, business, non-profits, and other mainstream institutions.

That optimism agreed to by the experts indicates their belief that the internet will prompt institutional change, but is contrasted with the same experts’ concerns that:

Government agencies are cumbersome and resistant to change. The pace of progress towards openness and responsiveness will be slower than anyone would hope.

In my first few months on the job, I’ve seen some resistance to change, but that has been outmatched by what I see as a wellspring of enthusiasm for changes to our agency. One aspect of my job is to uncover and unleash talent across the agency. I am happy to say that I’ve already seen the passion of our staff and I know we can change our course and exceed expectations.

In this digital age, we have the opportunity to work and communicate more efficiently, effectively, and in completely new ways. This will require a change not only in our processes, but also in the culture of the National Archives and Records Administration. Working on the Open Government Plan (PDF) has helped us take our first steps. It’s an exciting time to be at helm, charting a new course for our agency.

Where exactly are we headed?

To begin with, we are going to reclaim our records management leadership role.

We risk losing our memory as a country if we cannot meet the challenges of electronic records management. The fact is, without good records management, it is impossible for us to learn from the past and plan for the future. This concern is deeply American. At the conclusion of the Continental Congress, the Massachusetts delegate, Rufus King, advised that the records of the proceedings either be destroyed or given to the President. He feared that if the records were scattered or corrupted by those with an interest to do so, they could be used to distort history and deceive future generations. He understood the vital importance of records management.

We understand that electronic records are now a fundamental part of our documentary record. We will work to find and develop cost-effective IT solutions needed to meet our electronic records challenges. We will bring together leaders in records management and information technology to collaborate on our most pressing issues. Toward that end, we are sponsoring the first combined meeting of the Chief Information Officers (CIO) Council and the Federal Records Council to discuss electronic records management issues. Additionally, we will explore incentives for rewarding agencies that best demonstrate improvement, innovation, and use of technology in their records management.

At the same time, we intend to vastly improve our online capabilities in order to foster the public’s use of our records. Included in this effort will be a redesign of, with streamlined search capabilities for the research section of our website. Further, we intend to explore ways to develop our current catalog into a social catalog that allows our online users to contribute information to descriptions of our records. And although we have developed a number of successful social media projects in the last year, we now need to develop a comprehensive social media strategy for the agency, which will include internal and external communication efforts using new media tools. In these efforts lie the seeds of change that will alter the course of our agency.

I expect the principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration to change the way we do things, the way we think about things, and the way we deliver services to the public.

David S. Ferriero
Archivist of the United States (AOTUS)

For Further Information:
Visit our Open Government website at

Pew Research Center report, “The Impact of the Internet on Institutions in the Future.”

23 thoughts on “No Small Change

  1. Very happy to read the statement “electronic records are now a fundamental part of our documentary record”. And it is encouraging that there seems to be an understanding that information technology and records management are not to be dealt with separately, and that the majority of a modern archive’s information technology efforts will need to be a natural part of its core business (not to be outsourced).

  2. Thank you, especially for…
    –redesigning “, with streamlined search capabilities for the research section of our website;”
    –the commitment to chart “a new course for our agency” with increased “transparency, participation, and collaboration.”

  3. Welcome Mr. Ferriero to the wonderful world of blogging! I know that I am not alone when I say that your goal of making the archives more accessible and user friendly is most welcome amongst genealogists and historians everywhere. Thank you.

  4. It s good to see the Archivist of the United States getting his message out through this blog.

    I invite him to look closely at the innovate work some State Archives have been up to with regard to creating and maintaining an electronic archives, the largest single example of which is ours, which forms a major component of our sustainability master plan. See also the State Archivist’s blog:, especially the recent testimony to the Maryland State Legislature.

    I particularly welcome his concept of increased participation and collaboration at the State level. Documenting and preserving the permanent records of government at all levels is a shared responsibility in which all resources must be pooled and shared, if we are not to suffer historical alzheimer’s in the future and be doomed forever to repeating the mistakes of the past.

    Ed Papenfuse
    Archivist of Maryland

  5. Wish NARA could suggest ways for smaller, local groups to archive or re-distribute their records to larger groups to achieve your same goals. It is becoming cost prohibitive to survive in our records saving environment.

  6. There are many important federal government data records from as recently as the 1950s-1970s that exist only as typewritten sheets of numbers, with a single copy in a government office. For example, nationwide Social Security payments by county, state, month, and year, the kind of data academic (and other) researchers would love to get their hands on. But as of 5 years ago, when an economics professor here at Syracuse University wanted to analyze those data, there was no financial assistance to cover the cost of inputting the numbers into spreadsheets and then verifying the numbers. NARA helped us get access to the sole copy of these records. We then photocopied each sheet and shipped the photocopies to China to have the data input and verified there, paid for with money out of the professor’s resources. As a result, the professor involved is the only researcher with complete access to the electronic files. Perhaps NARA would consider contacting him about purchasing the electronic data so that everyone would have access to these invaluable records.

  7. I am concerned with the loss of records as we go from paper & microfilm to digital. Ancestry and Footnote have missed records when they converted records to digital and other records (census & military) were reorganized. I have encough problems now finding my ancestors. Is this acceptable progress or just the reality of the Federal government going broke.

  8. As I read your comments, I’m reminded that we’ve just taken the first step. I’m glad to see enthusiasm for the kinds of institutional changes that will harness the power of the internet. In order to become an agency fit for the 21st century, we need to think how we can leverage the power, enthusiasm, and dedication of “citizen archivists.” What does that term mean to you?

  9. I think that one of the archetypal citizen archivists is Carl Malamud:

    What do you think about NARA’s role in archiving judicial materials? Do you think that the type of institutional change you described implies free access online to such materials?

  10. An improved web site would be welcomed. One idea for an open agency would be to publish on the web site the name, e-mail address, phone number and area of expertise of each Archivist. This way when we are researching a particular period or event and we need guidance as to what records are on microfilm, digitized or available as original documents, we know whom to contact.

  11. Great to see you blogging! Unfortunately, unlike Kate, who has one of the best known archives blogs, I don’t have a blog at all. So I’ll have to leave a (longish) comment here. As a former NARA archivist who worked in a unit for which most of its employees largely worked in isolation for a long time, I believe two-way communication is critically important. Good communication helps NARA personnel to better understand the public it serves. Good communication helps NARA provide to the public information about its culture and the environment in which it works. Work cultures can be very different. An oral history interview with Roy Ash, former director of the Office of Management and Budget and a top official at Litton Industries, touched on what affects risk assessment and risk taking (Roy L. Ash interview, January 13, 1988 and August 4, 1988, NARA/NLRN).

    Ash observed in 1988 in an interview with a NARA archivist, “After leaving government, I went out and talked to business groups. . . . many of whom thought, and still think, ‘Why doesn’t the Government run like business?” . . . I said, ‘Imagine your board of directors comprising your customers, your suppliers, your employees, and your competitors. Now, how are you going to run your business?’

    Ash explained that when he worked in private industry, “my Litton experience was one of maintaining a highly entrepreneurial environment that was just one step short of anarchy.” Litton, an organization with some 120,000 employees. had no formal organization chart, “deliberately,” Ash said. “Organization charts tend to focus people’s attention on their territorial rights, not on their opportunities to range across the board, if they want to.” Yet he saw constraints other than hierarchies and territoriality in the public sector, as well. “In a pure venture capital environment, you know that up to half of your ideas are going to fail. But you know that the other half are going to more than make up for the half that failed, on a profit basis. Government doesn’t get that same credit for the half that fails versus the more than half that succeeds. The scorecard is different . . .I can point out a lot of my mistakes in business, but I also can point out how those were overwhelmed with some other successes.”

    He added, “But I wouldn’t have been forgiven those mistakes, had I been in Government.”

    In discussing how one taps the entrepreneurial spirit, Ash pointed out that executive departments actually vary in how “loose and open” they can be. “But risk taking is quite a different matter than in business. . . . In business, if you have a fragmented organization, you may make a mistake here, and you may experiment there, but you try to offset it even more by successes elsewhere. . . .The President’s public is not so forgiving.” According to Ash, this can lead to conservatism in the sense that it “means caution. It means initiatives not only well-thought through, but initiatives that you’ve fairly well tested, and believe the public will regard as positive, rather than negative. . . You can’t get too far ahead, I guess.”

    Even so, Ash said that he personally “would expect a lot of innovation in any Department I would run. But at the President’s level, tight control is essential. A President can’t afford, politically, if not for substantive reasons, the consequences of too much individual enterprise . . . [of the type that management guru] Peter Drucker describes.”

    Just as NARA would benefit from hearing more from its stakeholders, stakeholders would benefit from learning more about NARA. Granted, there are limits to how transparent an executive agency can be about some of its operations. However, I’ve read enough articles and blog postings about NARA since I left its employ to believe that some misperceptions have arisen simply from lack of contextual information. Only one former U.S. Archivist, Robert M. Warner, has written about his tenure. His book, Diary of a Dream: A History of the National Archives Independence Movement, 1980-1985, is out of print. I hope NARA expands on existing efforts to do exit interviews with selected retiring officials and staff and to consider implementation of a formal knowledge transfer program. With so little known on the outside about this important institution, seeking and sharing more information about how the agency works and why things play out as they do would be a good step towards capturing useful institutional memory. (I know the Archives’ Assembly has interviewed some people.) There are some fascinating stories there, beyond what NARA captured on its 75th anniversary site in 2009. Some might be suitable for sharing with the public. Some even may be add texture and useful context to discussions of how NARA best can work with its stakeholders. I do applaud your interest in outreach and wish you and all at NARA the very best.

    Maarja Krusten
    Historian and former NARA Nixon Project Archivist (1976-1990)

  12. I am involved in an effort to reenact important historical events using Twitter. We have called the idea TwHistory, and have created a site at Yesterday my colleague and I presented TwHistory to a group of 45 history teachers, and they were very excited about this new way to teach and learn about historical events. Using journals and other historical documents we have organized Twitter reenactments of the Battle of Gettysburg, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the 1847 Pioneer Trek.

    We are looking for more content to be able to expand our efforts, and the National Archives seems like the perfect partner. You mention the “need to develop a comprehensive social media strategy for the agency, which will include internal and external communication efforts using new media tools.” I hope this strategy includes a plan for encouraging groups outside your organization to get involved. You mention “transparency, participation, and collaboration” as agents for change. As a social media consultant, I realize your efforts are not without risk; but risks can be managed, and the rewards are much greater. I look forward to opportunities to help make our National Archives more relevant and accessible to all of us.

  13. NARA has had an Electronic Records Archive program in place for a decade or so, and yet nothing seems to have come from it. It might be good for Mr. Ferriero to take a hard look at the leadership of that project and make some changes to bring it into relevance.

    Michael Raugh
    (A senior IT professional at NARA, 2000-2003)

  14. To Carl A. Bloss (April 8): many states already have State Historical Records Advisory Boards, which exist to assist organizations and groups like yours, where historical records are at risk of loss or where there’s no “critical mass” within a small organization for preservation and public use.

    See for details about what might – – or might not exist for your state. Consult with your state archives director for more information, too.

    Martin Tuohy
    National Archives at Chicago
    National Archives and Records Administration

  15. Archivist of the United States Makes Citizens National Treasure Hunters

    “(Washington DC) 10:30 AM EST today – David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States discussed social media at the Smithsonian in a live broadcast via UStream in a talk called ‘Democracy 2.0: A Case Study in Open Government: How the National Archives’ own Open Government Plan is reaching out to new audiences through social media…’

    Read full story…

  16. Excellent summary David. Converting materials into an electronic form is not only expensive for companies but also a daunting task. I’ve worked for several fortune 500 companies over the past few years who struggle to implement policy and security changes as they put their best foot forward in “going digital”.

    One major positive note: the younger generations now coming into the workforce do everything electronic these days.

  17. We are looking for more content to be able to expand our efforts, and this blog seems like the perfect partner. You mention the “need to develop a comprehensive social media strategy for the agency, which will include internal and external communication efforts using new media tools.” I hope this strategy includes a plan for encouraging groups outside your organization to get involved. You mention “transparency, participation, and collaboration” as agents for change. As a social media consultant, I realize your efforts are not without risk; but risks can be managed, and the rewards are much greater. I look forward to opportunities to help make our National Archives more relevant and accessible to all of us.

  18. The comment left by Willian Auiles (directly above) is clearly spam and should be removed. It plagiarized large portions of my earlier comment simply to post an irrelevant link in the name.

    If you are still following this thread, I would love to chat about a possible study involving TwHistory and online resources from the National Archives. I am organizing additional research at Utah State University, but early evidence suggests that historical reenactments using social media has great potential in both formal and informal learning environments.

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