From the Coalition Column of the January 2011 issue of Perspectives on History

Transformation Underway at the National Archives

Lee White, January 2011

Recently, Archivist of the United States David Ferriero marked his first year in office by giving a “State of the Archives” address to the employees of the National Archives and Records Administration (see http://archives.gov/about/speeches/2010/12-2-2010.html).

Many of the initiatives he began since taking the helm are starting to bear fruit. Last summer, Ferriero created a staff task force to draft a plan for the “transformation” of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). In September, a draft report was circulated to all NARA staff seeking their input. In October, the final report, “A Charter for Change,” was released, outlining a new organizational model for the National Archives.

A Transformation Launch Team, led by Tom Mills (assistant archivist for regional records services), has already begun implementing the reorganization. Since November, the Transformation Launch Team has been working with staff to identify the core ideology and values of the agency, identify and implement specific action items that can be put in place immediately, and draft the remaining organization structure of the agency.

Ferriero has emphasized that his goal for the transformation of the National Archives is much more than merely reorganization. Ferriero has stated that if all reorganization does is to redraw the organizational chart without making a profound change in NARA’s underlying culture improvements will only be incremental, not transformational.

The Archivist and his management team have major challenges facing them in this regard. In August, the Partnership for Public Service released its “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” rankings. The National Archives and Records Administration tied for the lowest ranking (31st) with the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the category of large federal agencies. NARA had finished second to last in the 2009 survey. While NARA slipped one slot, its overall score improved from 56 in 2009 to 57.1 this year. An analysis of NARA’s ranking can be seen at http://bestplacestowork.org/BPTW/rankings/detail/NQ00.

The changes at the National Archives are not just internal. One of the major goals of the agency’s transformation is to make its service more user-friendly to the public. Ferriero has pushed the use of social media and is the first Archivist to blog, tweet, and launch a Facebook page. In addition, NARA has launched its own YouTube channel.

On December 13, 2010, NARA launched a redesigned Archives.gov web site as part of its Open Government Initiative.

The new Archives.gov web site features:

  • A brand new home page voted by the public in July 2010. The public and National Archives staff participated in the redesign process. A multi-faceted participatory approach, including online card sorts, voting on home page designs, and usability testing was used to gather input to create content organization on Archives.gov;

  • A new interactive “Our Locations” map of NARA’s facilities nationwide;

  • Historical documents and streamlined access to military service records (81 percent of Archives.gov visitors are looking for this information);

  • Single topically organized sections focused on the needs of both casual browsers and professional researchers; and

  • Easy links to National Archives’ social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, and both the Archivist’s AOTUS blog and other National Archives blogs.

Lee White is the executive director of the National Coalition for History. He can be reached at lwhite@nationalhistorycoalition.org.