NARA: Scanning the Past to Make Access Happen

06/17/2014 12:00 am

By David S. Ferriero
Archivist of the United States

The National Archives’ commitment to open government is clear in our mission: We drive openness, cultivate public participation, and strengthen our nation’s democracy through public access to high-value records.

In the 21st century, access means digital access. For many, if a record isn’t online, it simply doesn’t exist.

In our Open Government Plan for 2014-2016, our Flagship Initiative, “Innovate to Make Access Happen,” describes our digitization, description, and online access efforts for the next two years.

To make access happen, we will establish more substantial “roots” that increase the number of records that we digitize and strengthen the “core” systems that serve as our platforms for all of our online access—the agency’s Online Public Access Catalog and

With substantial roots and a strong core, we can “branch out” in innovative ways through engagement and collaboration so that the public can make greater use of National Archives records.

The components of this plan’s Flagship Initiative are led by the new Office of Innovation, which is the focal point for innovation across the agency and works to strengthen engagement and collaboration among staff, stakeholders, and the public.

We have recently established a digitization governance board that is charged with updating the agency’s digitization strategy NARA will develop a program to support the strategic initiative to digitize our analog archival records. We are also exploring new ways to expand our successful digitization partnerships.

Earlier this spring we launched a new internal description system. Staff members working on description projects at NARA are entering all descriptive metadata into the new system.

NARA also plans to launch an improved Online Public Access system later this year, with improved search and scalability, a public API, and crowdsourcing fields for citizen archivists to contribute to online catalog.

In the next two years, I want NARA to become a leader in innovation. We will launch a new Innovation Hub, an experimental unit that will be responsible for developing new ideas and tools that will enhance digital access and archival research.

NARA will sponsor two fellows during the third round of the Presidential Innovation Fellows program in 2014. The fellows will lead open development of crowdsourcing tools that will help unlock data and information from records formats and allow the public to easily contribute to the records.

Over the next two years we will work to increase the number of National Archives records available on Wikimedia Commons, continue our work to engage local communities of volunteer Wikipedians with on-site events, and collaborate on the development of the GLAM-Wiki U.S. Consortium.  

In 2013 alone, 4,000 digital copies of our records that were included in Wikipedia articles garnered more than 1.3 billion views. That is unprecedented access to our records.

We have a great deal of work ahead. But as you can see, digitizing the historical records of the federal government— scanning the past—is foundational to making 21st century access happen.