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Magazines > Information Today > April 2010

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Information Today

Vol. 27 No. 4 — April 2010

INTERVIEW with David Ferriero
A New Mission for the Librarian Archivist at NARA
by Miriam A. Drake


Last summer, many librarians welcomed some good news just as they were looking ahead to difficult days with budget cuts, furlough days, fewer book and journal purchases, and increased demand for resources and services.

On July 28, 2009, President Obama named David Ferriero as the 10th Archivist of the U.S. What makes this appointment extraordinary is that Ferriero is the first librarian to hold the archivist position. Previous archivists have been historians and scholars who had great appreciation for the work of the archives but did not have the needed experience in organization and management, content description, public education and access to content, or application of technology. Obama also named Ferriero to head the National Declassification Center with the mission of declassifying 400 million pages of classified information in 4 years. On Nov. 6, 2009, the Senate confirmed Ferriero’s appointment.

So what exactly does the Archivist of the U.S. do? The archivist is responsible for the management and operations of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), with an annual budget of $470 million and 3,400 employees. NARA is designed to be the nation’s records keeper and to preserve the country’s recorded history. The governmentwide records management program has a broad reach, serving federal agencies as well as the public. Its records include 9 billion pages of text; 7.2 million charts, maps, and architectural drawings; 20 million photos; 365,000 film reels; 110,000 videotapes; and millions of electronic records and data sets that are contained in the Electronic Records Archive (ERA). NARA also maintains facilities in 14 cities, in addition to Washington, D.C., and College Park, Md. It also operates two other facilities: the Federal Records Center that provides federal agencies with storage, access, and disposition services, and the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis.

Ferriero brings extensive experience in library and archival management to the post. Drawing on his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Northeastern University in Boston as well as a master’s in science from Simmons College Graduate School of Library and Information Science, he landed his first library job in 1965 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) libraries shelving books. He remained at MIT where he rose to associate director for public services and acting co-director of libraries. During the Vietnam War, he served for 4 years in the U.S. Navy. From 1996 to 2004, he was vice provost and university librarian at Duke University. Then in 2004, he became the Andrew W. Mellon director and chief executive of the research libraries of the New York Public Library (NYPL). His responsibilities were expanded to include the branch libraries that created the nation’s largest public library system.

In all his positions, Ferriero worked on transforming libraries, archives, and public services through technology. In December 2009, he spoke to the NARA staff about his experience: “In all these settings, I have had preservation and conservation experience, including creating the preservation program at Duke,” he says. “Most importantly, I have experienced and managed aspects of technological transformation in all three institutions, as libraries and archives have, for decades, been leaders in the application of technologies to their work.”

Ferriero also discussed NARA’s mission before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform late last year: “NARA’s current strategic plan articulates our mission as serving American democracy by safeguarding and preserving the records of our Government, ensuring that the people can discover, use, and learn from this documentary heritage. … I believe our charter demands that we responsibly and responsively make the records of the American government available to the American people.” And in a recent interview, he expanded on the role NARA has in fulfilling its mission. Here is Part 1 of a two-part article on Ferriero, his goals, and his insights, which has been edited for style. Part 2 will appear in the May 2010 issue of IT.

Q: When you arrived at NARA, what short-term challenges did you find?

A: I found seven main short-term challenges:

1. In terms of electronic records, varieties of technology, platforms, software, practice, and lack of standards are complicating the work of ingesting, preserving, and providing access to the government records.

2. Re-establishing NARA oversight of the records management programs of each agency, working with agencies to establish protocols, practices, and annual audits

3. The security of collections, both physical and virtual

4. The processing and declassifying of records through the establishment of the National Declassification Center

5. The future of presidential libraries

6. The engagement of our stakeholders in meaningful ways

7. The investment in NARA’s work force by looking at new strategies to recruit, develop and strengthen, and retain the diverse and highly skilled work force NARA needs to execute the mission that is vital to our government

Q: In 2009, a revised strategic plan for 2006–2016 was issued. What revisions do you anticipate? Will you begin a new planning process?

A: I have begun the process of working with senior staff to determine whether adjustments in strategic direction are needed, and then, a decision will be made on when to update the strategic plan.

Q: How does NARA work with the Government Printing Office (GPO)? What is GPO’s responsibility for archiving and preservation? Since both agencies are responsible for permanent public access, how can you work together to carry out this responsibility?

A: The National Archives has a unique relationship with the GPO. The two agencies are legal partners in the production of the Federal Register, which is the daily journal of federal agency rulemaking and public notices. The Federal Register Act created a three-member administrative committee comprised of the Archivist of the U.S., the Public Printer [who heads GPO], and the attorney general of the U.S. to govern the Federal Register system. The act also laid out the unique responsibilities of the Office of the Federal Register within the National Archives and of the GPO associated with this system. The Office of the Federal Register receives and edits Federal Register documents and helps compose the daily issue; in essence, it serves as the publisher of the Federal Register. GPO is the printer and distributor of the publication, which, since 1994, has included the legal responsibility for online access to it. NARA’s Office of the Federal Register and the GPO have a close, daily working relationship. The two agencies are tied together not only by their formal responsibilities but by the technology base on which the Federal Register publishing process takes place and by the cooperative ongoing development of new means of delivering and providing access to the contents of the Federal Register. The Federal Register system encompasses not only the daily Federal Register but the 226-volume Code of Federal Regulations, the United States Statutes at Large, the Daily Compilation of Presidential Documents, the Public Papers of the Presidentsof the United States, the U.S. Government Manual, and related publications.

NARA also works with the GPO to support permanent public access to the government publications printed by the GPO and to electronic records created or maintained by the GPO.

First, NARA keeps about 57,000 feet of federal publications [dating] from 1790 to recent days. The publications included in this collection are record, or preservation, copies of works often available to researchers at many of the congressionally designated depository libraries throughout the U.S. Only about one-half to two-thirds of all U.S. government publications are represented in this collection.

Second, NARA and the GPO signed two documents in 2003: a Memorandum of Understanding [MOU] establishing an affiliated relationship and a records schedule to ensure the preservation of and access to the electronic records on GPO’s public website, GPO Access. The records on this site at www.gpoaccess.gov include a wide variety of federal records from congressional hearings to independent counsel investigations. [This site is currently being redone and enhanced under a new name Federal Digital System and new acronym FDsys.] The 2003 records schedule makes the content of GPO Access and its successor systems permanent records in the legal custody of the National Archives in Record Group [RG] 287, while the MOU makes the GPO the custodian of the records that will preserve and provide public access to them.

In 2006, an addendum to the MOU between NARA and the GPO added the CyberCemetery of former federal websites to the permanent records in RG 287. The U.S. GPO and the University of North Texas [UNT] libraries have formed a partnership to provide permanent online access to electronic publications of selected former federal government entities. This collection includes federal sites that were previously hosted on GPO Access as well as federal sites that have ceased operation. These archived sites may be found at http://govinfo.library.unt.edu.

Q: How are we progressing in digitizing legacy collections, paper, photos, and others?

A: We have partnership agreements with three commercial organizations to help us digitize major portions of our records. The agreements and overall digitization strategy can be found on www.archives.gov/digitization. It is an approach that the agency had taken before I came. They decided that the only way they could accomplish this task is to partner with Ancestry.com and others. I have concerns about these arrangements. The stakeholder community also has concerns. To the best of my knowledge, we have not investigated raising money or asking for money to do the digitization ourselves. This is open territory.

Q: Since financial constraints are likely to be in place, what is the probability of getting more money for the project?

A: There are a lot of folks, such as Internet Archive, who are looking at opportunities to get at stimulus funds for a WPA [Wi-Fi Protected Access]-like project around digitization. I am sitting on 10 billion things. I have enough content to satisfy commercial partners and whoever else wants to get in the space as well as stimulus money.

Q: What is the status of Electronic Records Archive (ERA)? What is its purpose? How much progress has been made in its implementation?

A: The Electronic Records Archives is a comprehensive, systematic, and dynamic means for preserving electronic records that will be free from dependence on any specific hardware or software and will improve preservation of, and access to, electronic records into the future. The system will manage the entire life cycle of electronic records, from their ingestion into the system through preservation and dissemination to customers. Over the next decade, ERA will become increasingly capable, enabling NARA to process and make valuable government electronic records available. ERA is designed to support access by authorized users within NARA and across the federal government, as well as any individual anywhere who has access to network connections appropriate to their authority level [e.g., government officials will use different network connections than the general public].

The most fundamental characteristic of ERA is that it must be able to evolve over time to allow new types of electronic records to be brought into ERA and preserved. ERA will be built to guarantee that the electronic records are not corrupted or distorted by changes in technology. Eventually, the user will be able to view the authentic records, regardless of whether or not the software used to create the records is still available.

The ERA program began in FY 2002, with the establishment of the ERA Program Management Office [PMO]. Increment 1 Initial Operating Capability [IOC], known as the ERA Base Instance, was achieved on June 2008. The first Increment provides for accepting, storing, and processing electronic records from NARA’s legacy holdings and four federal agencies [the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the National Nuclear Security Administration, and the Naval Oceanographic Office].

Increment 2 was focused on transferring, ingesting into the system, and searching of electronic records from the Executive Office of the President [EOP] at the end of the George W. Bush administration. This release, known as ERA EOP, was deployed in December 2008. Loading the data into the ERA EOP began in January 2009. The EOP archive now stands at 77 terabytes. More than 36,000 queries have been executed against the archive.

Presently, Increment 3 is under development. Increment 3 will include the following: a Congressional Records Instance providing simplified storage and access capabilities for electronic records of the Congress [a public access instance, capable of providing the public with the tools needed to search and access ERA records]; an upgrade to the ERA Base system architecture to make the system more flexible so that changes in business process rules or commercial off-the-shelf products can be made without extensive proprietary coding; and upgrades to the ERA Base software to enable users to view and print reports, verify the transfer of records into the system, search the archive based on business objects [e.g., record schedules or transfer instruments], make changes to record schedules, update transfer requests and increase the size of record transfers, and verify that the data type of the records is what is described by the transferring entity.

Q: How is NARA keeping up with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests? Is it true that FOIA requests governmentwide are backed up?

A: We have this new office that has been established within the archives with the primary role of mediation between the requestor/filer and the agency that controls the content. There is some pressure on agencies now to be more flexible. At the same time, we’re looking at ways of freeing the information. We have the new National Declassification Center that has just been established by executive order. We have a mandate to declassify 400 million pages of content by the end of December 2013. It is huge. We are working now to create a process that we can identify categories of content and quickly move through them rather than going page by page. There are more than 2,000 classification guides currently in operation in the government. We have to get it down to one.

[Part 2 of the interview with David Ferriero will appear in the May 2010 issue of Information Today. —Ed.]


Miriam A. Drake is a former professor emeritus at the Georgia Institute of Technology Library. Send your comments about this article to itletters@infotoday.com.
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