Democratizing Access to our Records

The National Archives has a big, hairy audacious strategic goal to provide public access to 500 million digital copies of our records through our online Catalog by FY24. When we first announced this goal in 2010, we had less than a million digital copies in the Catalog and getting to 500 million sounded to some like a fairy tale.

The goal received a variety of reactions from people across the archival profession, our colleagues and our staff. Some were excited to work on the effort and wanted particular sets of records to be first in line to scan. Some laughed out loud at the sheer impossibility of it. Some were angry and said it was a waste of time and money. Others were fearful that digitizing the records could take their jobs away.

Graph showing the number of digital objects in the Catalog from 2010 to 2020. The graph shows an increasing line up to 100 million digital objects.

We moved ahead. Staff researched emerging technologies and tested them through pilots in order to increase our efficiency. We set up a room at our facilities in College Park to transfer our digital copies from individual hard drives to new technology from Amazon, known as snowballs.

Image of the "snowball fort" sign outside the room where digital copies were transferred from hard drives.

We worked on developing new partnership projects in order to get more records digitized. We streamlined the work in our internal digitization labs and we piloted digitization projects with staff in order to find new ways to get digital copies into the Catalog. By 2015, we had 10 million in the Catalog.

We persisted. In 2017, we added more digital objects, with their metadata, to the Catalog in a single year than we had for the preceding decade of the project. Late in 2019, we surpassed a major milestone by having more than 100 million digital copies of our records in the Catalog. And yes, it has strained our technology. The Catalog has developed growing pains, which we continue to monitor and mitigate.

We also created new finding aids that focus on digital copies of our records that are now available online: see our Record Group Explorer and our Presidential Library Explorer. So now, anyone with a smart phone or access to a computer with wifi, can view at least some of the permanent records of the U.S. Federal government without having to book a trip to Washington, D.C. or one of our other facilities around the country. The descriptions of over 95% of our records are also available through the Catalog, so even if you can’t see it immediately, you can know what records exist. And that is convenient for the millions of visitors we get each year to our website, even more so during the pandemic.

We are well on our way to 500 million digital copies in the Catalog by FY24. And yet, with over 13 billion pages of records in our holdings, we know, we have only just begun.

2 thoughts on “Democratizing Access to our Records

  1. I actually do research for pay, in my opinion this is excellent for the future and the present. I wish during the pandemic, and in future I could do what I need to do at home. Keep going!!!

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