NCH Testifies at Hearing on Issues Facing a New Archivist of the U.S.

On May 21, 2009, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census and the National Archives held a hearing to consider the policy issues facing a new Archivist of the United States. Among those testifying was Lee White, the Executive Director of the National Coalition for History (NCH).

Also testifying at the hearing were Ms. Meredith Fuchs, General Counsel of the National Security Archive and Ms. Patrice McDermott, Director of Dr. Thomas Battle, representing the Society of American Archivists, was unable to attend the hearing, however his testimony was submitted for the record (click on the individual’s name to see their written testimony).

A summary of the of the key issues facing the new Archivist of the United States from the perspective of the National Coalition for History is listed below. (To see a copy of Mr. White’s full written testimony, click here).

1. Resources—Any consideration of the issues facing the National Archives must begin with a discussion of resources, both financial and human. For too long, the Congress and various Administrations have given NARA additional responsibilities without a commensurate increase in funding.

The top priority for the new Archivist should be to address the growing processing backlog. Congress should give NARA the financial resources necessary to not only process the existing backlogs of historical materials, but also to keep up with the exponential increase of new records.

With regard to human resources, NARA is facing the retirement of a large percentage of its workforce. The agency must employ and train a new generation of archival professionals.

2. A report was recently issued measuring federal employee’s job satisfaction. Disappointingly, the National Archives finished 29th out of 30 large federal agencies. The first challenge the new Archivist will face is improving NARA’s organizational culture and restoring morale at the agency.

3. Ensure the creation and preservation of federal and presidential records—The Archivist of the United States will need both the full backing of the President, as well as vigilant congressional oversight, to ensure that all branches of the government adhere to the legal requirements of the Federal Records Act and the Presidential Records Act.

4. Reform the Presidential Library System—Last fall, Congress directed NARA to prepare a report, due this summer, that suggests alternative models for the presidential library system. The presidential library system is broken. Reforming the operations, maintenance, and funding of the libraries should be a priority for the new Archivist.

5. Complete deployment of a new system for preserving electronic records—The long-delayed Electronic Records Archives (ERA) is an essential tool for the NARA of today and tomorrow. Mandatory use of the ERA by all federal agencies is currently scheduled to begin in January 2011. The new Archivist must ensure that the ERA meets that deadline.

6. Pursue efficient declassification and open access to public information—Over-classification of government information not only denies or delays public access to records, but also squanders resources by adding to the backlog of records that need to go through the convoluted declassification process.

The Archivist should play a key role within the administration in the development of the forthcoming government-wide Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI) policy.

The new Archivist should also advocate within the administration for the establishment of a National Declassification Center at NARA which we were disappointed to see was not included in the President’s fiscal year 2010 budget request.

7. Improve citizens’ access to government records—NARA must expand on-line access to finding aids and digitized portions of its collections, as well as maintain extended research hours so that stakeholders can access materials that are only available at NARA facilities.

8. Expand NARA’s educational and outreach activities—The records and artifacts entrusted to NARA’s stewardship are truly national treasures. To improve historical and civic literacy, NARA should continue to expand its excellent educational and public programs.

9. National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC)—The National Coalition for History strongly supports the grants program of the NHPRC. We urge the Administration and the new Archivist to work towards the passage of the legislation (H.R. 1556) to reauthorize the NHPRC at an annual level of $20 million for fiscal years 2010 – 2014.