October 22, 2021
David S. Ferriero
Archivist of the United States
Last spring, my Task Force on Racism issued a report that laid out numerous recommendations to improve equity in our agency and our work. One of those recommendations was to provide a warning statement about possible harmful content in records found in the online National Archives Catalog.
As you know, the records presented in the Catalog are the raw materials of history, and as such they contain historical information that may be inspiring or disturbing. Some of the records describe or depict violent or graphic events, or use outdated, biased, offensive, or violent language. The warning banner alerts users to that fact. Variations of this warning are used by many of our peer institutions in the United States and around the world.
NARA’s banner is a general warning and is not connected to any specific records. It automatically appears at the top of every page of the Catalog.
The warning banner links out to our web page “NARA’s Statement on Potentially Harmful Content,” which fully describes our efforts.
Last month, some individuals and organizations chose to portray this warning as if we explicitly tagged specific documents, such as the Constitution, Declaration, and Bill of Rights as harmful. That is, of course, not the case.
I recently met with the Task Force members to discuss this issue, and I listened to what they have experienced over the past several weeks. Unfortunately, they have become the target of abuse in the media and via online comments, emails, and telephone calls to them personally and to NARA. Our Inspector General’s Office has coordinated with the Federal Bureau of Investigation to look into the communications that are actually threatening.
I thanked the Task Force members for their work, which I firmly believe is going to make an important difference in our future. I also thanked the NARA staff who have been fielding the emails and social media comments. It is an unpleasant but necessary task. Together, we are building a future for NARA as a more inclusive agency.
The outrage over the harmful content banner quickly died down as the news cycle moved on.
However, we expect this sort of thing to continue as we implement the two Presidential executive orders related to equity and diversity, continue to implement the recommendations for our Task Force on Racism, and develop an exhibit on racism scheduled for 2024. As an agency, we are preparing ourselves for criticism as we work to make NARA a more equitable workplace, as we expand our work to repair harmful terminology used in our descriptions, and as we surface the stories of those who have been overlooked.
Our current organizational values were developed several years ago:
Although these values stand the test of time, they are not sufficient for the work we are undertaking today. We are in the process of developing a new values statement that will encompass our positions on equity in the workplace and in our work.
We are taking care of ourselves and each other so that we may continue the good work we have begun. This is not going to be an easy road, but it may be some of the most important work we will do for our agency and for the country.