NARA Seeks to "Maximize" its Value to Nation

11/17/2014 12:00 am

By David S. Ferriero
Archivist of the United States

In two previous columns, I discussed the first two of four goals of the 2014-2018 Strategic Plan for the National Archives and Records Administration.

The first was “Make Access Happen,” a review of how we’re going to make as much of our holdings as possible accessible to everyone. The second was “Connect with Customers,” our plans to engage our customers more so we can respond to their needs more efficiency and more effectively.

The third goal is “Maximize NARA’s Value to the Nation.”

It means we recognize that “public access to government information creates measurable economic value, which adds to the enduring cultural and historical value of our records. . . .We will strive to implement new business practices to achieve greater efficiency and effectiveness in all we do and ensure institutional sustainability.”

To achieve this third goal, we are at work on a number of fronts.

With a mandate from the Office of Management and Budget, we have directed government departments and agencies to get their recordkeeping in order in the next few years, and we have established deadlines for them to do so. We’re also helping them with guidance and assistance.

We must move more quickly toward digital recordkeeping, even as we reform records management, and develop 21st century methods.

This is especially important as we continue the transition to a digital government in which all records will be electronic, not on paper. That includes emails, too. And we have already begun the long, labor-intensive task of digitizing the 12 billion pieces of paper created since our government began.

With records preserved in an orderly fashion, it’s easier for any private individual to use them for personal use. And it’s easier for businesses to use them for research or commercial use, and reuse, that creates economy activity.

And we’re also at work seeking to develop a means to measure the economic impact of the repeated use of the records in our custody—especially to the local economies where our 40-plus facilities are located.

But the heart of our efforts to “maximize NARA’s value to the nation” is our unshakable commitment to the cultural and historic values of the records, values likely to increase. It is a commitment not only to preserve them for generations to come but also to make them as accessible as possible to today’s generations.

Actions we have taken, and will take, regarding the records will further enhance the ability of researchers to generate new scholarship and of families to trace their history. And we’ll provide them with the records they need in whatever format they want, as quickly as possible anytime and anywhere.

We are constantly striving for increased efficiency and effectiveness in all our work, both internally and externally. This, of course, is especially important in an era of diminishing federal resources.

One way will be better utilization of our brick and mortar facilities to bring in revenue, just as we already do when we allow outside groups to use our downtown Washington building for events.

We also want to learn more about the effectiveness of our programs, products, and services, an intangible that is difficult to measure. But we are working on ways to help us do so.

For our customers to appreciate “NARA’s value to the nation,” they need to know more about us, and that’s what traveling exhibitions and loaned documents are all about—showing Americans what’s in their national file cabinet, much like what the Freedom Train that crossed the nation did in the late 1940s.

To “maximize NARA’s value to the nation,” we will need to develop an entrepreneurial culture and make a business case for what we do, especially in these austere fiscal times.

But we have the advantage of already being for Americans a trusted source—with those founding documents that guarantee their rights, hold government officials accountable, and preserve the story of the nation.

These records, then, make up part of the wealth of our nation. It is wealth to be treasured—and to be shared.