A short while ago a group of archival and records management organizations (the Society of American Archivists, the Council of State Archivists, the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators, the Academy of Certified Archivists, ARMA International, and the National Coalition for History) posted documents they prepared and submitted to the Obama Transition Team responsible for the National Archives, who will presumably be advising the President-Elect on selecting the next Archivist of the United States. As one might expect, there is both good and bad news to report about this effort.
The good news is that these groups acted rapidly after learning about Dr. Weinstein’s unexpected plans to retire. They also worked together to coordinate a response. Presumably they wanted to move quickly in order to get their organizations’ names in front of the Transition Team early in the nomination process, and establish themselves as key stakeholders and resources. This kind of pro-active, quick, coordinated response is certainly necessary when responding to fast-breaking national events.
The group’s document, “A New Archivist of the United States: Qualities of a Successful Candidate,” contains nothing that I think any archivist or records manager would disagree with. It hits the key points about “ensuring that our government’s record-keeping processes are accountable, transparent, and open,” and emphasizes privacy, equal access, public ownership of government records, political non-partisanship, etc. It raises the need for the next Archivist to “provide leadership and advocacy on behalf of NARA’s roles to the public, government officials, and NARA staff, and on behalf of the archives, records management, and historical communities.” If the next Archivist had all the qualities outlined in this document, most in the archives and records management communities would be quite pleased.
However, if the next Archivist has only these qualities, I would be extremely disappointed and I think NARA would face a future of increasing irrelevance and decline. The bad news, in my opinion, is that the document produced by these groups fails to recognize and state how critical the need is for the next Archivist to be fluent with 21st century technology. Here are some specific examples of what that means to me.
– The next Archivist needs to ensure that NARA presents information about its collections to the public in the ways that the public wants to access it. NARA needs to be committed to meeting and exceeding the expectations of today’s users, and tomorrow’s as well. He or she needs to support using every appropriate technology tool to open up NARA’s processes and collections to public participation and use. And that access must be truly free–not tied to subscribing to a particular vendor or travelling to a NARA facility.
– In order to effectively lead NARA’s 21st century electronic records management efforts, the next Archivist needs to understand how people are creating (and want to create) and manage their information. He or she needs to have vision to understand how NARA can ensure that Federal records are effectively captured in this new environment without placing burdens that prevent people from doing their jobs effectively.
– The new Archivist must have a good understanding of how IT systems are developed. Some may scoff at this, but as someone who was in a position to observe the two previous Archivists, I think this knowledge will be a key to success. The Archivist is ultimately responsible for the development of NARA’s internal systems, most importantly the Electronic Records Archives. The next Archivist needs to be able to fully understand and critically assess information provided about NARA’s own systems development efforts.
– In order to effectively lobby Congress and the administration and serve as a public advocate for the role NARA must take in moving its archival and records management mission into this century, the new Archivist must be able to speak eloquently, knowledgeably, and spontaneously about the impact of new technologies on NARA’s mission.
There is another aspect of the new Archivist’s job that I think the archival and records management organizations did not adequately describe. In my opinion, as a former employee and an observer, the next Archivist is going to need the managerial skills necessary to transform NARA as an organization into one that is in a position to succeed in the 21st century. NARA needs a leader who is not afraid to make changes and who will listen to the smartest people in the room and support them, even if they are not the most senior. In short, the next Archivist must be prepared to shake things up and to follow through on it for the long haul.
The phrase that keeps coming up when I talk with my friends is that NARA needs an Archivist who “gets it.” The phrase that keeps coming up in my head is that NARA needs a 21st-century mind, not a 20th-century one. It needs a strong, technology-savvy, visionary manager who shares the values of government openness and accountability that Obama successfully campaigned on.
If we are lucky enough to get a new Archivist of the United States who meets those qualifications, then we will have change at the National Archives that we can all believe in.