OAH Home Donate to OAH Join the OAH


Making Access Easier at the National Archives

by David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States

For many years, a visit to the National Archives meant standing in long lines, elbowing your way through crowds to view historic documents, or spending hours in reading rooms sorting through boxes of old documents or scrolling through frame after frame of microfilm. Not anymore. Now you can also visit us and do research from the palm of your hand with your Smartphone.

Smartphone applications take you right to our Web site, our blogs, our Facebook page, our Flickr or Foursquare locations, or to our materials on YouTube. Rapid advances in technology have increased the demand for digital content on our own site and through social media. This has made our mission—providing access to our holdings—more efficient, more effective, and a whole lot easier and fun! Let’s look at some examples.

We are on Foursquare, a location-based app. Users can get tips and see relevant records when they “check in” at places around the country, drawing attention to our records from an audience who might not think that the holdings of the National Archives would interest them. For example, the U.S. presidential libraries recently launched on Foursquare, with facts and images about the thirteen most recent presidents and with “check in” opportunities across the country and beyond.

Other image-based social media platforms such as Flickr and Tumblr encourage viewers to share interesting photographs from the National Archives holdings. Viewers can participate in crowdsharing by tagging the photographs in Flickr—for example, identifying Civil War ships or providing the names of people in the photograph.

While waiting in line at the National Archives building to see the Charters of Freedom, visitors can pass the time by downloading the Document of the Day app to their phone, giving them access to a wide range of records every day of the year. They can also catch up on history by accessing past and current articles from our flagship publication, Prologue, on Scribd (http://www.scribd.com) using a Smartphone.

If you follow one of our Twitter feeds, you could see a shortened link that will take you to a featured record, event, video, new exhibit, or will give you a chance to ask an archivist using the #AskArchivists hash tag. Users can retweet or respond, passing the record around the social media universe.

All of this new technology represents the cutting edge of what we are doing to broaden and deepen access to our holdings. Technology helps us do this job—through our Web site and social media tools—and it is the key to preserving records that are being created electronically today.

Our principal means for preserving them is the Electronic Records Archives, which moves from the development stage to the full operational stage this fall. It will make the most important electronic records—2 to 3 percent of all those created now and in the future—accessible on the Internet and through Online Public Access. But many of the records that people come to the National Archives to see are not electronic—they are traditional paper records, and we have about 10 billion pages of them. So how do we make these records accessible? Digitization. This process is expensive and time consuming, so we are digitizing the most frequently requested records first. Through a series of partnerships with commercial entities, we are getting many records digitized in return for, in some cases, limited-time, fee-per-use access to the documents by the partner on its Web site. Eventually, these records will all be available free on our Web site, but without these partnerships, it would be impossible to scan these records ourselves.

There are other ways we are providing access to records that garner high interest. Since we oversee the federal classification and declassification programs, we are increasing our focus on making sure agencies classify only material that needs to be classified and only for as long as need be. We are also stepping in to help resolve Freedom of Information Act disputes between federal agencies and requesters. In our first year, we resolved four out of five of the cases that rose to the level of disputes. By the end of 2013, we will eliminate a backlog of about 400 million pages of unprocessed classified records. So far, we have streamlined the reviewing process and put a big dent in the backlog, evaluating about 14 million pages per month. And 91 percent of the pages reviewed are being declassified and going to the open shelves.

The National Archives is working to increase your access to your records, whether for serious business or just enjoyment.

For more information on social media projects at the National Archives, visit: http://www.archives.gov/social-media/.

About the Archivist

David S. Ferriero is the 10th Archivist of the United States. Prior to his confirmation on November 6, 2009, Ferriero served as the Andrew W. Mellon Director of the New York Public Libraries.