Designing a 21st-Century National Archives: International Archives Week 2019

Today’s post comes from Meg Phillips, External Affairs Liaison at the National Archives.

This week is International Archives Week, time set aside by the International Council on Archives (ICA) to celebrate the founding of ICA in 1948. It provides a single time when all archives around the world can call attention to the value of their work with blog posts, open houses, public programming, and other activities. Special events and a social media campaign (#IAW19) highlight archival collections and the valuable work of archivists in preserving the documentary heritage of the world.  

20190213_SemaineInternationale_ICA_CartePostaleA6_BAT.inddEvery year, the theme of International Archives Day (June 9) or International Archives Week is linked to the theme of the upcoming ICA conference. This year, the theme for the 2019 ICA Conference in Adelaide, Australia, is “Designing the Archives in the 21st Century.”

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is celebrating this week on social media using the #IAW19 hashtag. We are also exploring how NARA is “Designing the Archives in the 21st Century” here by noting some important ways we have been designing around users.

NARA has used digital user personas to help center the user experience of our website, The Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, has blogged about this work in “Improving Customer Experience with Digital Personas.”  This work is ongoing and is being expanded by our new user experience (UX) team.

National Archives Digital User Personas - Veteran
Veteran persona, Victor Williams.

We have also written about designing and constructing the National Archives flagship building, which is perhaps the most obvious way to design an archives. However, even more important than the building are the decisions made by archivists that affect the shape of the archives as a historical collection. The collecting practices, transfer policies, and appraisal criteria determine the records that come into the National Archives and “design” the archives in the most fundamental way.

NARA policies and practices related to appraisal and transfer have changed over time in response to changes in the broader culture and in NARA’s understanding of who our users are and what they need from us.

One major change in the shape of NARA’s archival collection came in the early 21st century with the reappraisal of a number of “personal data series.” NARA’s appraisal practices had formerly identified a number of very voluminous case file series as temporary, meaning that once the creating agency’s need for the records was over and all rights and interests documented in the records had been protected, they could be destroyed.

However, our growing understanding of users’ need for these records to support family history research meant NARA needed to reassess the type of archive we were creating. After clear feedback from researchers, NARA reappraised several large personal data series as permanent, with significant implications for the volume of the archival collection and appraisal practices in the future. You can trace some of these decisions and their impact on the archive in the eventual transfer and opening of the new series in NARA press releases:

Record of Induction, Official Military Personnel File for Elvis Aron Presley. (National Archives Identifier 57304571)

More recently, Federal agencies are creating the vast majority of their records electronically and NARA is attempting to digitize its analog collection to provide better access. NARA has been working with agencies to make the transition to fully electronic recordkeeping and shifting our collecting for the NARA of the future into digital form.

After President Barack Obama issued the Presidential Memorandum on Managing Government Records, NARA and the Office of Management and Budget jointly issued the Managing Government Records Directive, setting a series of goals for NARA and agencies to support this transition. The keystone goals were for all agencies to be managing their email records electronically (no more printing email messages) by the end of 2016, and for all agencies to be managing all the permanent electronic records electronically by the end of 2019 (no more printing records that are born electronic).  

Managing Government Records Directive, August 24, 2012.

With the release of our 2018 – 2022 Strategic Plan, we announced the most dramatic goal yet—after the end of 2022, NARA would no longer accept transfers of paper or other analog records into either the Federal Records Centers or the National Archives.  

These goals recognize that agencies are now almost exclusively creating electronic records.  That means the authentic original record is the electronic version, not a piece of paper that might be printed from it. If we accepted paper printouts of these records, the Archives would then have to digitize the printed paper records to improve public access, laboriously converting the record back to a new digital copy. This wouldn’t be a good use of staff time or NARA’s budget.

As this series of goals builds one on the other, NARA is designing an archive of the future, where born-electronic records remain electronic, maintaining their authenticity and searchability as they are accessioned into the archives.

NARA archivists have been designing the archive—in the sense of shaping the archival collection we want to provide—based on our understanding of what our researchers need and what Federal agencies can provide. The National Archives of the future will still have our keystone documents—the original Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and Bill of Rights—for the public to see.

However, now we are also planning for voluminous new series full of personal information most valued by genealogists and a shift in collecting focus toward searchable digital records for the many researchers who rely on modern records and who prefer the searchability and remote access that electronic and digitized records provide. We are listening to our users’ needs and honing our user experience skills as we design our archives for the 21st century.

3 thoughts on “Designing a 21st-Century National Archives: International Archives Week 2019

  1. As authors, my husband Gerry and I have found the National Archives invaluable in doing research on American history. The NARA was one of the primary sources of information for the book, “Selling Americans on America.” It’s the story of the 1947-48 Freedom Train which toured all 48 states in the US, giving its citizens the opportunity to view precious historical documents provided by the dedicated curators and staff of the National Archives.

  2. Great news! It will be so helpful to researchers like myself in other locations who need to be able to access information from afar. I am in California and much as I would like to travel to the archives, it is not always possible. The online documents I have found — ship manifests of German-Jewish emigres during the 1930’s — have been invaluable to my project. Thank you so much for all you do!

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