SAA 2015: Session 304, Archival Challenges and Opportunities: Perspectives from the Archivist of the United States

In advance of the 2015 Annual Meeting, we invited SNAP members to contribute summaries of panels, roundtable and section meetings, forums, and pop-up sessions. Summaries represent the opinions of their individual authors; they are not necessarily endorsed by SNAP, members of the SNAP Steering Committee, or SAA.

Originally scheduled to attend SAA, the Archivist of the United States, or AOTUS, David Ferriero was stuck in Washington, DC during his session due to inclement weather and a canceled flight. Through the wonder of technology, though, he was still able to join the conference via Skype. SAA President Kathleen Roe served as an interviewer, giving the session a conversational tone.

There were many great questions for Ferriero, but they centered around four things: Congressional oversight, NARA’s involvement with other agencies, whether or not NARA would assume a national leadership role, and the outreach programs that had been implemented at NARA.

With the budget debate looming, Ferriero encouraged SAA members to contact their representatives to talk with them about funding for the National Historical Publications & Records Commission. As Roe pointed out, this is the only funding in the federal budget that is specifically geared toward archives. Ferriero said that NARA had strong relationships with the members of the Government Oversight Committee (which oversees NARA) and the Appropriations Committee, but he was most concerned about Members who didn’t belong to either of those committees, as they would be less likely to understand what NHPRC does. Educating funders was the single most important thing that NARA needed from other archivists, as AOTUS is barred from lobbying Congress.

Ferriero encouraged federal advocacy on other topics relating to archives, too. He hoped that SAA members would try to establish relationships with local Members, by contacting them and also inviting them to events that their institutions were hosting. This would ensure they would be more apt to listen when you asked for help with things like NHPRC funding in the future.

Roe asked Ferriero a few questions regarding NARA’s role when dealing with other agencies. Specifically, she brought up the idea that it should oversee Members of Congress’ personal papers and the records of the Judiciary. Ferriero’s response was that NARA was an Executive Branch agency with responsibility for Executive Branch records only.

He pointed to all of the news stories surrounding records mismanagement by other federal agencies, and suggested that NARA had its work cut out for it with its current responsibilities. The bad management had led to a lot of support from both the President and Congressional leaders for NARA to implement stronger records management policies. Ferriero has asked for more staff to help implement this, and he feels that placing NARA staff in the different agencies to help ensure retention policies are followed correctly would help tremendously.

As for NARA employees’ involvement with SAA, Ferriero said that he encouraged staff to participate in all kinds of professional development, which would include SAA involvement. He also mentioned that NARA had in the past promised that it would provide open source tools to help archivists around the country with their digital workflows, but those promises had fallen through. However, he has recommitted the agency to developing and sharing those tools. This, he felt, was part of NARA’s role as a national leader, somewhat like the Library of Congress was for libraries across America.

Ferriero talked about collaborating with other agencies and organizations. There is a new head of the Smithsonian, and there will be a new Librarian of Congress this fall. The three could work together, particularly with their digitization efforts, which would be economical as well as practical. NARA has committed to digitizing everything, which will be a massive undertaking, so any help he could get from partner organizations would be welcomed. He also discussed working with the Canadian archives, as well as state and local archives within the United States. Ferriero pointed out that some of the archives at the state and local levels throughout the country were doing some really innovative things, particularly with records management, that could be implemented at NARA.

Under Ferriero, NARA has developed several outreach activities. The most well known are the sleepovers at the National Archives, which engage kids and their families all night long. As he says, it’s not fluff. There is a lot of learning happening. Ferriero was very surprised that families came from across the country – not just the DC region – to participate in the sleepovers.

Another outreach effort that Ferriero was quite proud of was the Citizen Archivist movement. He said that on day one of the Obama Administration, the president had challenged the agency heads to allow citizens to solve some of the problems that government could not. Ferriero took this charge to heart and began allowing everyday users of the NARA website to tag collections. He says it’s been a great success, and the Citizen Archivists have done a wonderful job supplementing the work of NARA staff.

Overall, Ferriero has worked diligently to make NARA a more open, collaborative place. AOTUS is on a mission to involve as many people as he can to solve the problems at NARA, and we can support him and NARA in this effort by educating local Members of Congress on the importance of our records and NARA’s involvement in preserving them and making them available to the American people.

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