National Archives–“History Museum or Records Access Agency?”

On December 16, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s Information Policy, Census, and National Archives Subcommittee held a hearing entitled “History Museum or Records Access Agency? Defining and Fulfilling the Mission of the National Archives and Records Administration.”

Subcommittee Chairman Wm. Lacy Clay (D-MO) stated he had heard concerns from many of NARA’s constituencies that the agency’s increasing emphasis on museum exhibits and related programs was not only straining its resources but diverting its focus from fulfilling its core mission of receiving, preserving and opening federal and presidential records.

Archivist of the United States David Ferriero led off the hearing and was candid in his assessment of the changes needed at NARA. In his testimony, Ferriero touched upon the delicate balance NARA needed to maintain to meet the needs of its varied constituencies. He stated, “The school child who is inspired by seeing the Constitution is no less vital than the scholar writing a book about the Constitution.”

Ferriero addressed the recent controversy caused by NARA’s decision to reduce the size of its microfilm reading room to provide more museum exhibit space. Ferriero admitted that NARA staff did a poor job of communicating the decision to researchers who would be affected by the changes. He announced NARA would be holding a public forum to solicit public input as to how best to design and equip its research areas.

In his testimony, and during the question and answer period, Ferriero addressed the need to improve security at NARA facilities. In response to one inquiry, Ferriero stated that NARA needed to be more pro-active and aggressive in ensuring federal agencies and the White House were meeting their records preservation requirements under law. He expressed confidence that the new Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) being housed at NARA would help expedite the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process across the federal government. Finally, Ferriero noted that one of his highest priorities was to improve the management culture and employee morale at the agency.

Also on the panel with the Archivist were the Librarian of Congress Dr. James Billington and the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Dr. G. Wayne Clough. Both men discussed the common challenges they faced in preserving their holdings while also making them accessible to the public. Billington and Clough shared the belief that it was important to complement and coordinate their activities with the National Archives.

The Subcommittee next heard from a panel of NARA stakeholders.

First was Anne L. Weismann, Chief Counsel of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). In addressing the basic question posed by the hearing, Ms. Weismann hoped that, “NARA will become a records access agency first, a role it has ignored for far too long by placing undue emphasis and resources on its museum functions.” She was sharply critical of NARA’s “culture of passivity and indifference” in enforcing the Federal Records Act (FRA), and its failure to conduct inspections of federal agencies records management programs and practices. She also rejected claims by NARA that it lacked enforcement authority under the FRA.

Ms. Janet A. Alpert, President of the National Genealogical Society was the next to testify. She began by stating that genealogists were, “concerned about the backlog of documents in the possession of NARA that have not been processed, as well as the many additional records that will be sent to NARA over the next few years.” She felt expanding the exhibit and museum space was ignoring NARA’s highest priority of records preservation. She noted that Washington, D.C. already had many museums on the National Mall but that NARA was unique and needed to be “a world-class research facility.”

Kevin M.

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Goldberg testified on behalf of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of nine media organizations concerned with Government openness and accessibility. He focused his testimony on NARA’s inability to meet the demands placed on it by the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to respond to requests within the statutorily-mandated twenty day period. Mr. Goldberg discussed at length the newly created Office of Government Information Services (OGIS). While independent, OGIS is being housed within NARA. Its major functions will be to mediate disputes between FOIA requesters and federal agencies, and to serve an oversight role to ensure agencies are complying with FOIA. Mr. Goldberg expressed his skepticism that OGIS can achieve its goals and tasks without more employees and resources.

The final witness was Carl Malamud, the Founder and President of Public.Resource.Org, a non-profit organization devoted making government information more accessible. Malamud echoed the testimony of Ms. Weismann in criticizing NARA’s failure to take a leadership role in setting and enforcing records management standards for federal agencies. Mr. Malamud was highly critical of NARA’s Electronic Records Archive project that is years behind schedule and over budget. He also cited the enormous challenges faced by not only NARA, but the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress in digitizing older materials. He noted that none of the economic stimulus funds had gone to NARA or the Library of Congress and that the Smithsonian had only received funds for building repair. Malamud proposed a federal digitization project modeled after the Historical Records Survey and Inventory of Federal Archives programs administered by the Works Project Administration during the Great Depression.

One thought on “National Archives–“History Museum or Records Access Agency?”

  1. The National Archives should get out of the museum business and concentrate on it’s core mission. Washington is awash in museums that are among the only museums in America that are largely tax-payer subsidized. This might not occur to folks in DC, but half our nation’s cultural patrimony – art, arifacts and archives – are held by small organizations all across the country; many at risk. There are almost no programs – state or national – designed to support or enable these organizations. THAT is where taxpayer support should be directed, not at enlarging the already vast array of cultural attractions in DC. If it’s important that students see the Declaration of Independence and related docs – put them on loan somewhere else

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