From the News column of the February 2009 issue of Perspectives on History

Historians Propose Priorities for New Archivist

AHA Staff, February 2009

Editor’s Note: President-elect Obama is expected to nominate a new Archivist of the United States to fill the position to be vacated by Allen Weinstein, who resigned recently. The American Historical Association, in conjunction with several other members of the National Coalition for History, recently drafted the following memorandum setting out the organizations’ views on what the priorities of the new Archivist of the United States should be in the coming years.

The Obama Administration, which has committed itself to openness and transparency in government, should consider candidates for Archivist of the United States who have the professional experience, managerial skill, and political acumen to address the following priorities in the future operation of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

  • Insure the creation and preservation of federal records—President Obama should support NARA’s role in insuring that all branches of the federal government, including the Executive Office of the President, carry out their legal obligation to create and maintain the records of their work and to transfer those records of enduring value to the custody of the National Archives in a timely manner. If records of enduring value are not created, identified and retained in the early stages of records creation there will be no evidence of key aspects of our national story.

  • Improve records management—NARA selects Federal records to be retained permanently and sets standards for their maintenance and transfer to the Archives. Effective management of federal records will improve the performance of our government, save tax dollars, protect the rights and interests of the people, and preserve our American history and culture.

  • Complete deployment of a new system for preserving electronic records—The long planned Electronic Records Archive (ERA) is an essential tool for NARA to identify, preserve, and make available those federal records of enduring value that are increasingly and only available in digital form. Without this tool, there will be significant and substantial gaps in the history of the United States beginning with the late 20th Century. ERA also has the potential to provide significant cost savings for managing digital records throughout the federal government and the states.

  • Pursue efficient declassification and open access to public information—Excessive classification of information throughout the government not only deprives citizens of the free access to information essential to a democracy, but also squanders scarce resources better invested in managing all federal records. A more innovative approach is necessary if the vast amount of classified records in the Archives is to be made available to the public in a timely way (no longer than 30 years).

  • Address the growing processing backlog—A substantial volume of historic federal records are currently inaccessible to researchers because NARA lacks sufficient resources to process these materials to make them available.

  • Improve citizens’ access to government records— NARA must expand on-line access to finding aids and digitized portions of its collections, manage and retain the expert knowledge of its staff, and maintain extended hours so that historians, journalists, political scietists, and other researchers and members of the public can use materials that are only available at NARA facilities.

  • Address key concerns regarding the Presidential Libraries—These include emphasizing the creation and preservation of current records, insuring the prompt and complete accessioning of presidential records at the end of an administration, the timely review and release of presidential records, maintenance of the intellectual integrity of Presidential Library exhibits and programs as well as the long-term financial sustainability of the Presidential Library system.

  • Strengthen the NARA’s organization and culture—Facing the upcoming retirement of a large percentage of its workforce NARA must train and employ a new generation of professionals with the skills and experience to face the complex technical and administrative challenges of the future. The Archivist must provide the leadership and vision to inspire creative and excellent performance throughout the agency, and continue to develop effective partnerships with public, private, and academic organizations that enhance and extend NARA’s ability to accomplish its mission.

  • Expand NARA’s education and outreach activities—To improve historical and civic literacy and preserve aspects of the nation’s history found beyond the scope of NARA’s collections, NARA should expand its educational and public programs. Through the work of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) and its important grants programs, NARA must provide essential leadership and support for preserving our nation’s documentary heritage, as well as for broadening access to these resources.

Inquiries about this document may be addressed to 202-544-2422, ext. 116.