We All Stand to Gain if NARA Gets Budget Breakthrough

John Carlin, September 1998

By the time you read this, the Congress of the United States may have approved a much needed boost in the budget of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). If so, it will improve the chances that documents historians need will be accessible. In fact, it will improve the chances that the history of the 20th century can be fully and accurately written.

Let me summarize first what is happening and then explain that statement. When I became Archivist of the United States in 1995, I said we would seek operational efficiencies to improve our services, but if we required more money to meet public needs, I would aggressively ask for it. Subsequently we have described in a strategic plan what we must do, made significant progress in changing the way we operate, and identified needs for additional dollars in critical areas—and I have asked for them. I've spent time talking to Congress and the president about the importance of the management, preservation, and accessibility of government records. And I am pleased to say that the initial responses of the president and the Congress have been greatly encouraging.

Specifically, President Clinton included in his budget proposal to Congress for fiscal 1999 a substantial increase in funding for NARA. The president proposed an increase of 12 percent—nearly $25 million—in our operating expense budget, plus more than $10 million for repairs and restorations at our facilities, and $6 million for grants for documentary publishing and preservation from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), which NARA administers and I chair.

In mid-summer, the House of Representatives approved comparable figures for NHPRC grants and for repairs and restorations, and the Senate Appropriations Committee recommended even more. In addition, the House bill and the Senate bill both contained substantial increases in NARA's operating budget, even though not quite as much as the president requested. As of this writing, many hurdles remain in Congress before any such increase reaches the president's desk for signature. But if a budget boost is approved, it will be good news for historians along with all other users of NARA's holdings and services.

Why? For one thing, the proposed increase for NHPRC grants will make more funds available for editorial work on documentary editions. It is interesting, and helpful, that out of all the recent discussion on NHPRC priorities we may be about to get more appropriated funds, and private funds as well, for accelerating work on publishing the Founding Fathers Papers. But the prospective budget boost is also good for historians because the increase would enable NARA to take additional steps toward improving government records management and preserving electronic records. As many of you have pointed out, such steps are critical for historians who need access to a full documentary record.

Government computers are now producing enormous volumes of electronic mail, wordprocessing documents, and automated databases. NARA is trying to cope not only with the volume but also with the special problems that these records pose. Electronic material is easily deleted, computer tapes and disks quickly deteriorate, and the hardware and software systems on which they can be read become rapidly obsolete.

The federal government, along with everybody else in the age of digitized information, is losing unknown amounts of potentially valuable records. NARA has preserved and made accessible paper dispatches that generals sent and received in the course of conducting the Civil War more than a hundred years ago, but will electronic records remain accessible even into the next decade or two from which to study command decisions in the Gulf War? Or, to take current headlines, how much of the record material accumulating in the computers of the various independent prosecutors will survive deletion, deterioration, and the discarding of machinery that can read it? At a recent conference one participant said, "Historians will look back on this era and see a period of very little information. A 'digital gap' will span from the beginning of the wide-spread use of the computer until the time we eventually solve this problem."

Because electronic records can be so unstable and vulnerable, it is critical to manage them effectively from the point of their creation. That means that the promotion of systematic records management within the federal government becomes in the electronic-information era more important than ever. Accordingly, we have already reallocated some of our resources and positions to records management, and if we receive funds requested for fiscal 1999, we'll be able to add more.

Prospective funding increases would enable us to accelerate our efforts to develop practical approaches to electronic records management and preservation specifically. For example, we are working with the State Department on accessioning electronic cable files, with other agencies on electronic records declassification, and with the Department of Defense on the need for functional requirements for recordkeeping systems and for testing and certifying software to meet those requirements. This is in addition to the work being completed by an interagency Electronic Records Work Group that I created to deal with an issue on which historians, among others, have challenged us through the courts--how to schedule the disposition of certain kinds of electronic records. (All program records, in my view, should be scheduled.) Moreover, the proposed budget increase would help us meet an objective in our strategic plan to reexamine our entire process for appraising, scheduling, and tracking records while in agency custody.

Historians should understand that this emphasis on ensuring that the right records get saved does not mean we are inattentive to improving ways in which we help historians locate records already accessioned. For evidence, just visit our web site at www.nara.gov. There you can now access the NARA Archival Information Locator (NAIL). It is a pilot database for the Archival Research Catalog (ARC) that eventually will become a complete catalog of the entire holdings of the National Archives—not only our holdings in Washington but also the holdings of our regional archives and our presidential libraries. Historians among other researchers will be able to see on their home or office computer screens what NARA has of use to them and where we have it. Already within NAIL you will find 348,000 records descriptions. Developing ARC is a key NARA strategy for making more access available to more people, and it will be of major help to historians.

Additionally, through our Electronic Access Project, you will be able to access many documents themselves. In the coming year, we will put up more than 100,000 of our most interesting and requested photographic and textual records for online access. More than 69,000 images are already available, including a collection of Albert Einstein letters and historical photographs from our Matthew Brady collection. Also from our home page, you can get to the JFK Assassination Records Collection Database, where you will find records recently released by the Assassination Records Review Board. From our web site you can stay current on the development of NARA's agency-wide space plan as well as our progress in dealing with electronic records issues. On both of these issues, as well as on any other, we not only welcome but encourage input. We certainly want to hear from historians on such key issues.

But additional resources will be necessary for us to proceed on all these vital fronts--managing records to prevent loss, preserving electronic records that can easily deteriorate, and improving our access services. That is why the increases that I hope for from the Congress are so important to NARA—and to every present and future historian who will need access to the government record.

—John Carlin is the Archivist of the United States.