October is American Archives Month, a time when we celebrate the work that archivists all over the country do to ensure that the records of their institutions are created, collected, and protected in a manner that allows their clientele to find what they need. Here at the National Archives that means ensuring that citizens can hold our government accountable, can learn from our history, and can explore family histories, to name just a few ways the records are used.
What do I love about the National Archives? The discoveries made every day in the records of our country, such as:
Last week a veteran arrived in College Park by motorcycle from Nevada. He has been searching for 43 years for information about his platoon leader killed in Viet Nam. The staff found the information he needed “in 30 seconds!”
An archivist in St. Louis learned of a family bible in our pension claim records for his Revolutionary War ancestor
Letters with checks for the pennies collected by school children, teachers, and Elks Lodges around the country in a campaign to save the Navy’s oldest ship, the U.S.S. Constitution during the late 1920s.
The fact that my grandfather, Paolo Ferriero, was 15 years old when he arrived in Boston from Naples in 1903. And that he was met by his father, Antonio, who had arrived three
Last Saturday I spoke to an enthusiastic crowd of Wikimedians at the Wikimania 2012 Conference here in Washington. Over 1400 people from 87 countries came together to talk, hack, and share their expertise and experiences at the week-long event. I was glad to share in their joie de vivre and to talk about our common missions at the closing plenary session.
Check out the enthusiasm for the National Archives at Wikimania 2012:
So you may be asking why the Archivist of the United States is so interested in working with the Wikimedia Foundation. As I noted at the conference, 42% of Americans turn to Wikipedia for information.* It is a terrific way to make Archives content more transparent and available. If we are serious as an agency about our mission to provide access to permanent federal records, and indeed we are, then we must consider working with the community and using the power tools available through the Wikimedia Foundation.
Our Wikipedian in Residence (pictured above) has already worked with our staff to upload over 90,000 digital copies of our records to the Wikimedia Commons for use in Wikipedian articles. We have several more projects in the pipeline, too, all in an effort to increase access to our records.
Here’s what I said to the crowd Saturday afternoon:
The conference had a robust backchannel of information … [ Read all ]
Last week the staffs of the National Archives and the Canadian Embassy here in Washington gathered to commemorate the War of 1812 in a special way—The Great Doughnut War of ’12, pitting Dunkin’ Donuts and Krispy Kreme against Tim Hortons. Three celebrity judges—two from the National Archives and one from the Canadian Embassy participated in a blind taste testing (below left).
And the attendees all had a chance to vote (ballot box, above right) as the doughnuts were served on separate unlabeled platters. Lest you think the two to one odds—doughnuts and judges—were unfair, let me point out that the event was held in MY HOUSE!
The tension built during the day when we learned that the delivery of Tim Hortons to the Embassy resulted in potential disaster.
Claiming SABOTAGE by the competition, the resourceful Embassy staff hoofed it to Baltimore for replacements.
On April 1, 1940 over 120,000 census takers fanned out across the United States to begin conducting the 1940 census. Over the next several weeks they would enumerate over 131,000,000 residents of the country from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to families living in the remotest areas of the nation.
Genealogists, social scientists, historians, and others, as well as the staff here at the National Archives, are eagerly awaiting the opportunity to discover what life was like as the country neared the end of the Great Depression. The 1940 census reflects the previous decade with questions intended to track migration and employment during the Depression. For the first time the Bureau of the Census employed sampling when conducting the census. Approximately five percent of the population was asked supplemental questions including ones about military service, the birthplace of parents, and, for women, marital status and the number of children.
On Monday morning, I was pleased to co-host the National Archives’ ceremony along with my friend, Robert Groves, Director of the Census Bureau. Together, we officially opened the 1940 census to the public. For the first time, we released the 3.8 million pages of the census online, which was the largest online release of a single series of digitized records by the National Archives.
Immediately following the release, the online traffic to our website was astounding. Within … [ Read all ]
Almost 100 years ago, Justice Louis Brandeis wrote: “Sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant. If the broad light of day could be let in upon men’s actions, it would purify them as the sun disinfects.”
I like to think that we celebrate Sunshine Week every day at the National Archives. We have a unique role, which we describe as “preserving the past to protect the future.” The beautiful sculptures designed by Robert I. Aitken and chiseled by the Piccarelli Brothers of the Bronx at the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance echo this. “The Past” is represented by an ancient bearded man with a scroll and “The Future is a young women with a book. She sits atop a pedestal inscribed with “The Past is Prologue.” That is the spirit which embodies the function we serve.
It also embodies the Freedom of Information Act which we celebrate this week. FOIA was passed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on the Fourth of July in 1966. Since its passage it has been used by scores of people to learn more about how our government works. In 2010 alone, the government received more than 600,000 requests for records under the FOIA. We are proud to have the original text of the FOIA as it was signed into law in 1966. And we are especially proud to have it … [ Read all ]
In September 2011, the White House launched an online petition web site, We the People, where anyone can post an idea asking the Obama administration to take action on a range of issues, get signatures, and get a response from their government.
It’s an experiment in democracy, which is generating new ideas and improving on old ideas every day. One of those rising ideas is “Yes We Scan.”
Yes We Scan is an effort by the Center for American Progress and Public.Resource.org to promote digitization of all government information in an effort to make it more accessible to the world.
I strongly support this Presidential initiative, which sends a very clear message to Federal agencies about the importance of managing electronic records. Records management must keep up with the technologies used to create records in the Federal government, and the President’s Memorandum underlines the critical nature of this responsibility.
Each agency will be required to report to the Archivist the name of a senior agency official who will supervise an agency-wide evaluation of its records management programs. These evaluations, which are to be completed in 120 days, are to focus on electronic records, including email and social media, as well as those programs that may be deploying or developing cloud-based services.
The President’s memorandum also asks that the National Archives identify opportunities for reforms that would facilitate improved government-wide records management practices. We will begin immediately to coordinate discussions with Federal agencies, interagency groups, and external stakeholders.
My staff and I look forward to working with OMB, the Associate Attorney General, and all agencies to ensure that they comply with the new Memorandum and that we continue a government-wide effort to preserve permanent electronic records that eventually become part of the … [ Read all ]
As the nation’s record keeper, we are passionate about the opportunity to support research and scholarship at the National Archives. As part of this commitment to research and inquiry, we recently awarded the first National Archives Legislative Archives Fellowship to Dr. Peter Shulman, Assistant Professor of History at Case Western Reserve University.
Peter Shulman in the research room at the National Archives in Washington, DC.
Dr. Shulman’s research focuses on technology and American foreign relations in the 19th and early 20th century, expanding his 2007 dissertation into a manuscript, “Engines and Empire: America, Energy, and the World, 1840-1940.” By accessing the Congressional records housed at the National Archives, Dr. Shulman is not only able to explore the ways Congress handled questions of foreign relations and technology, but also surveys petitions and memorials as a way to better understand how Americans viewed their government.
The historical records of Congress, housed at the National Archives Center for Legislative Archives (CLA) in Washington DC, provide a wealth of information about the role of Congress since the First Congress convened in 1789. Dr. Shulman described an exciting find during a recent visit to the CLA: a large collection of petitions and memorials from the early 1850’s asking Congress to reduce ocean postage rates. He noted,
“Many Americans linked the cost of international postage to things
Every time I visit a National Archives site around the country, I learn something new. Passionate staff educates me about the nature of the records in our custody. At each stop I have jaw-dropping moments.
In a recent visit with our Chicago staff, I learned about Record Group 21, Records of District Courts of the United States, Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, U.S. District Court, Chicago. Specifically, I got a chance to review Criminal Case 4632: The United States vs. George Pavlick. Pavlick, the defendant, in mid-December 1910, mailed a threatening letter to Max Maas of Chicago demanding $200 or Pavlick would kill Maas. Pavlick was charged with violation of the postal laws—scheming to defraud using the U.S. Post Office. Pavlick, a minor, pleaded guilty and was turned over to the juvenile court.
Extortion letter written by George Pavlick of “The Black Hand.” From Criminal Case 4632: The United States vs. George Pavlick. Pavlick, the defendant, in mid-December 1910, mailed a threatening letter to Max Maas of Chicago.
Last week I had an opportunity to address the Preservation Section meeting of the Society of American Archivists. The theme of the meeting was holdings protection—balancing access to holdings with safeguarding them. And two of our Holdings Protection staff, Larry Evangelista and Richard Dine participated in a panel discussion reporting on what we have accomplished to date in this area. My remarks at the meeting were an opportunity for me to reflect on my many years of worry on this topic:
We’ve come a long way from the time when books were chained to shelves but I often wonder if maybe that wasn’t such a terrible way to provide collection security! Daily we all deal with the tension between protection and access.
I have spent my entire career worrying about and dealing with collection security issues. As a shelver in the Humanities Library at MIT, my morning duties included clearing the reading room tables and reshelving. There I discovered the journals with articles ripped out, books in the Women’s Studies section which had been mutilated, the era of Winslow Homer woodcut engravings sliced from Harper’s Weekly. The Sex Collection was kept in a locked cage in the basement because of theft! During my 31 years there I dealt with the disappearance of many years of the
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