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Magazines > Information Today > May 2010

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Information Today

Vol. 27 No. 5 — May 2010

INTERVIEW with David Ferriero
Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Transparency
by Miriam A. Drake

On July 28, 2009, President Barack 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 fill this position. Previous Archivists have been historians and scholars with a great appreciation for the archives, but they did not have experience in organization and management, content description, public education and access to content, or application of technology. Obama also named Ferriero as head of the National Declassification Center with the task of declassifying 400 million pages of classified information in 4 years.

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). In all his past positions, Ferriero worked on transforming libraries, archives, and public services through technology.

During the last decade, many talented and dedicated federal government employees have resigned or retired. The government lost the services of people who worked to promote science, information dissemination, and technology. Now the government is attracting some of the best and brightest workers. Ferriero is facing many challenges including the security of material and electronic records, preservation, access, declassification of a large body of content, the presidential libraries, and digitization. With so many problems to solve and new systems to implement, Ferriero’s experience in managing large and complex organizations, implementing technology-based systems, and serving diverse and often demanding clientele and stakeholders make him the man for the job to deal with NARA’s operations.

In a recent interview, he expanded on the role that NARA has in fulfilling its mission. Here is Part 2 of a two-part article on Ferriero, his goals, and his insights, which has been edited for style. [Part 1 appears in the April 2010 issue of Information Today.]

Q: What about the information that is considered sensitive but unclassified?

A: There is a lot of emphasis on open government and transparency. We are using that leverage to help solve the problems.

Q: In May 2009, the president issued a memo on controlled but unclassified information as well as classified information. How does this memo affect the presidential libraries, NARA’s responsibilities under Executive Order 12958, and NARA’s operations?

A: The National Archives played a central and critical role in reviewing policies related to both “Controlled Unclassified Information” [] and “Classified National Security Information” [] in response to the president’s memorandum of May 27, 2009.

As far as the Classified National Security Information [CNSI] is concerned, the National Archives directly supported the review of existing CNSI policy and the preparation of recommendations for the president. The Information Security Oversight Office [ISOO], which is part of the National Archives, provided significant staff support to the Public Interest Declassification Board as it led extensive online engagement with the public. Due to NARA’s leadership in the declassification area, and as ISOO has long been responsible for oversight of activity related to classification, safeguarding, and declassification, we directly supported the interagency effort to draft recommendations to the president. These efforts culminated in three issuances by the president on Dec. 29, 2009: 1) Executive Order 13526, “Classified National Security Information,” 2) a presidential memorandum, “Implementation of the Executive Order, ‘Classified National Security Information,’” and 3) a presidential order, “Original Classification Authority.” These three goals are part of the coordinated records, information, and knowledge management strategy; agencies will be able to adapt to the demands of an evolving business environment.

The combined effect of these three issuances on the National Archives is immense. We will be challenged as never before, but the challenges we face are ones that are aligned with our long-standing role to safeguard records that contain information that requires continued protection and to otherwise make records available to the public. We also have to consider the following challenges:

• ISOO’s responsibilities have been expanded, and it must lead an interagency effort to develop implementing guidance, all while continuing to conduct oversight during this critical implementation period.

• The National Archives is now responsible for leading the newly established National Declassification Center to streamline declassification processes, facilitate quality-assurance measures, and implement standardized declassification training.

• There is an immediate need to address quality-assurance issues and referrals in more than 400 million pages of accessed federal records of permanent historical value before Dec. 31, 2013.

• Presidential libraries must continue to meet the unique challenges they face in seeking the eventual declassification and the release of their most-sensitive and historically valuable holdings.

In terms of the controlled unclassified information [CUI], the National Archives directly supported the review of CUI policies as a participant in the task force led by the Department of Homeland Security [DHS] and the Department of Justice [DOJ]. Additionally, the CUI office within ISOO provided the task force with substantial staff support. The task force provided its recommendations to the president in late August, and the task force report was later released to the public.

In addition to making recommendations that would generally increase the responsibilities of the National Archives as the CUI executive agent, the task force recommended expanding the scope of the CUI Framework from terrorism-related information for agencies within the Information Sharing Environment [ISE] to all “sensitive but unclassified” [SBU] information for all agencies. This and any number of the 40 task force recommendations could result in an exponential increase in the scope and workload of the National Archives as the CUI executive agent. However, reform concerning sensitive, unclassified information is necessary, and we look forward to leading this important effort to enable more efficient and effective means to identify, safeguard, and share this information and to implement a more rigorous means to ensure that only information that truly needs to be protected will be treated as CUI. This will ultimately support transparency and openness.

Q: On Dec. 8, 2009, an open government directive specified that online information be in open format? How does this directive affect NARA operations?

A: The open government initiative is one of my priorities at NARA. It is closely aligned with our mission to preserve and provide accessibility to the records of the federal government. NARA currently has 14 data sets available on the site, and three more will be available shortly, as specified by the open government initiative. We are working on an open government plan that will describe how we will improve transparency, integrate public participation into activities, and identify future data sets to publish on An open government webpage will be available shortly at that describes NARA’s various efforts toward this initiative.

Q: In your December testimony
before a house committee, you indicated that security of physical and digital holdings is a major priority. How will you address security issues?

A: There is a delicate balance between holdings security and providing access to our holdings. As events have happened in the past, steps and new procedures were implemented to avoid reoccurrences. Now, in a more proactive response, NARA has created the Holdings Protection team to review current procedures, make recommended changes to improve security processes, provide training to staff and volunteers, and provide specific oversight inspections to make sure that the procedures are properly implemented, including determining the effectiveness of the training.

Q: What programs are in place for security and disaster recovery?

A: The ERA staff has developed and implemented contingency plans to ensure that we have a coordinated recovery strategy that addresses the plans, procedures, and technical measures necessary for recovery of the information system.

Contingency planning covers a broad scope of activities, not just disaster recovery. We have a number of business continuity plans in place that focus on sustaining business operations after disruption and continuity of operations plans that focus on restoring our essential functions in the event of a major disaster. A key piece of contingency planning is the business-impact analysis that identifies the critical functions performed by the information system and the potential risks the information systems faces. This analysis determines the preventive controls and recovery strategy that we put in place and drives our recovery priorities.

The most important aspect of contingency planning is performing the testing and training exercises. Testing contingency plans allows us to identify gaps in our processes and prepares our employees in the event that we have to activate the plan. This helps improve our overall preparedness.

Q: At the same hearing, CREW [Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington] expressed concern about the promulgation of standards and procedures for agencies’ records management programs. What is this about?

A: Standards for agencies’ records management programs are codified in 44 U.S.C. 3101 and 44 U.S.C. 3102 as well as in 36 CFR [Code of Federal Regulations] Chapter XII, Subchapter B. NARA developed a strategy to measure federal agency compliance with these requirements in FY 2009 and identified this as an area of ongoing concern in our operating plan for FY 2010. This work is ongoing and remains a priority for NARA.

Q: What is the progress toward issuing the standards and procedures?

A: On Nov. 2, 2009, NARA promulgated revisions to agencies that encompassed all aspects of an agency records management program including the foundational requirements found in 36 CFR 1220. NARA also offers a records management training program to assist agency personnel in understanding and implementing these requirements. In addition, all of NARA’s guidance is developed to improve an agency’s ability to carry out these requirements.

Q: How well are agencies complying with these requirements?

A: In late FY 2009, NARA developed a project for records management oversight activities that included requiring that agency records management self-assessments be submitted to NARA. Responses to these assessments are currently being analyzed with a report that was set to be published in late March.

Q: What incentives can you offer agencies to encourage compliance?

A: Records enable and support an agency’s work to fulfill its mission. Since records are a critical resource for achieving agency goals and reducing costs, it is essential that agencies systematically manage their records. At a high level, NARA sets forth three records management goals to ensure that agencies: 1) economically and effectively create and manage records necessary to meet business needs, 2) maintain records long enough to protect rights and assure accountability, and 3) preserve all records and ensure their accessibility for as long as needed. By meeting these three goals as part of coordinated records, information, and knowledge management strategy, agencies will be able to adapt to the demands of an evolving business environment.

Q: Carl Malamud [founder of Public.Resource.Org, a nonprofit that has been instrumental in placing government information on the internet] complained that NARA is spending money on museum exhibits at the expense of making records available to the public. What is your response?

A: NARA is committed to making records available to the public in many different ways (research rooms, exhibits, online) for a wide variety of people. The 10-year-old girl who is inspired to learn more after seeing an original Susan B. Anthony letter on exhibit is just as important to us as the professional researcher writing a book on the suffrage movement. The percentage of NARA’s budget dedicated to museum programs is about 3%.

Q: What programs do you have with Google?

A: In February 2006, the National Archives began a pilot program with Google to digitize and place online a diverse selection of U.S. government motion pictures. Eventually, 101 films from government agencies such as NASA, the Department of the Interior, and the Office of War Information were made available for free access and download. While the pilot project was an enormous success generating more than 1 million hits and downloads within the first year, the partnership is currently dormant. However, digitized video files of the complete 101 films are now available on ARC [Archival Research Catalog] on the NARA website at by using the search term “sigoogle” in the ARC search box. The digitized films are no longer directly available from Google.

Q: What is the status of the Amazon/CreateSpace deal on motion picture conversion to DVD?

A: NARA has a 3-year distribution agreement with Amazon, which is in effect until July 2010. The agreement may be automatically renewed each year unless either party notifies the other that it wishes to dissolve or change the agreement. To date, about 2,300 NARA film titles have been digitized by Amazon for its disc-on-demand program. NARA has received copies of the DVDs for placement in its research room for public access and use.

Q: Are there any plans to make the digitized versions of the motion pictures available online?

A: Amazon provides a 2-minute trailer of each film it digitizes that is available online in ARC at The complete film is available in our research room for copying by any researcher who may use [that] copy for any purpose including posting it online or elsewhere. The agreement currently does not allow NARA to attach an entire film digitized by Amazon to its description of the film in ARC on

Q: How does NARA interact with similar agencies in other nations?

A: NARA has had a close working relationship with the Library and Archives of Canada as well as The National Archives (U.K.). As a member of the International Council on Archives, NARA communicates regularly with the national archives of other countries on topics of mutual interest.

In addition, NARA hosts international visitors on a regular basis. These meetings are in the form of workshops, study tours, professional exchanges, and meetings. The exchange of ideas and best practices provide both NARA and our international colleagues a wealth of knowledge from professionals across international borders. This information exchange fosters cooperation between international archivists.

Q: What is the likely future of the presidential libraries?

A: There is a report done by the staff just before I started. It suggested five models. We expect to have a series of hearings probably in the next 6 months by both the House Oversight Committee and the Senate Oversight Committee to go into this in more detail. It is an incredibly political issue. Its current model is unsustainable financially. Right now, one-quarter of the archive’s budget goes to the presidential libraries. If you look at the projections out to 2030, it does not work. Something has to change. According to the model, the president establishes a foundation, the foundation raises money for construction, and then turns the library and the museum over to the archives. The foundation then continues to fund activities on the museum side and sometimes on the library side.

Q: Are the endowments sufficient?

A: There is correlation between the death of a president and the foundation’s ability to raise money. For instance, take Herbert Hoover. There is not a lot of money coming in there.

Q: What are the possible avenues to alleviate that crunch? How can you raise more money for the libraries?

A: Raising more money would sustain the current model. I really think we need to look seriously at different models. There are a lot of different facilities with a lot of security and environmental risks, especially around primary materials spread out across the country. If you look to the shift to electronic information at some point, it doesn’t matter where the materials are because the information will be primarily electronic. I think the museum aspect of the educational programs is very important in the communities where they sit and play an important role in the education of the K–12 community in American history, the presidency, and government. It is a civics lesson in all of the libraries.

Q: What future developments are you looking forward to?

A: We are seriously working with the White House Technology Office on ways to support the open government initiative, and the focus is on the general public. For instance, we publish the Federal Register. How can we take the content of the Federal Register and translate it into English, make it accessible to the general public, and engage the public in government by reviewing proposed legislation and reacting. We are working with Beth Noveck, the deputy chief technology officer. Her book Wiki Government is a model for our work with her. She sees us as a partner. For me, it is very exciting. It is the upside of what I do every day.

NARA has to lead. We are not in a leadership position now. We have now adopted new technologies and use them in ways that one would expect the agency responsible for government records to be acting. This is one of the many challenges I have. Also, we need people to support us.

Q: What trends do you see for the next 5 or 10 years?

A: We see the amount of electronic information coming to the archives as increasing exponentially. We will be dealing with more records with fewer dollars given the current and near-future budget climate. There will also be an ever-increasing demand for openness and transparency that the archives is prepared to meet.

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