Dramatic change to NARA’s mission in new strategic plan?

The National Archives and Records Administration has issued a draft of its Strategic Plan for FY 2014-2019 for public comment (comments due June 28, which is not a lot of time).

I’m just reading through it now for the first time and am struck by the change in the description of NARA’s mission from the existing plan to this one:

From the 2009 Strategic Plan:

The National Archives and Records Administration serves American democracy by safeguarding and preserving the records of our Government, ensuring that the people can discover, use, and learn from this documentary heritage.We ensure continuing access to the essential documentation of the rights of American citizens and the actions of their government. We support democracy, promote civic education, and facilitate historical understanding of our national experience

From the current draft:

NARA drives openness, cultivates public participation, and strengthens our nation’s democracy through public access to high-value government records

That’s quite a shift in emphasis, wouldn’t you say? Nothing there about preservation, although perhaps the authors think that’s implied. And “high-value” records? I suppose that’s thought to be an improvement over lengthier descriptions of the qualities of records makes them worthy of preservation, but that seems like a very clumsy way to describe it.

This certainly reflects a shift to try to make the archives appear more action-oriented, rather than a passive custodian, but I think something may have been lost along the way. What about you, any thoughts on the “as-is” and proposed “to-be”?



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14 thoughts on “Dramatic change to NARA’s mission in new strategic plan?”

  1. Just based on the above, it sounds like “low-value” records exist by implication, and are not worthwhile/available to the public.

  2. I agree with you Kate that there are several sections of the plan that are confusing and opaque, even to me. And you know I am very NARA oriented and NARA centric! Some of the confusion derives from use of buzzwords and IT jargon, such as “data-at-rest.” Some of it from use of terms which are ambiguous, such as “high-value.” In terms of records management, less than 5% of all Federal Records Act controlled materials are designated as “permanently valuable” and eligible for transfer into NARA’s holdings, as you know. What is unclear in the usage of the term “high-value” is whether it refers to that traditional records management and appraisal process (for which readers have varying levels of awareness). And I included in that NARA’s Capstone records management proposal, which defines high value by function in determining permanent value. Or whether it refers to designations of certain analog records already held by NARA as prime candidates for digitizing and making available electronically.

    If the latter, this gets tricky. I remember public pressure from a few very highly connected, powerful people outside NARA which influenced actions in the old days. Quieter, less influential peoples’ voices had less impact. So it takes a lot of skill to wend one’s way through the thicket of determining demand. I certainly wouldn’t want NARA to become an organization which yields or is overly influenced by the loudest most aggressive and power-yielding voices or by astro turfing. Or in worst case scenarios, hidden threats and perssure. As versus thoughtful consideration of a broad range in what it hears regarding stakeholder needs. Complicated.

    The passage is confusing and a cold reader might not know what it means. It would be hard to tell from outside whether it indicates a change in mission focus or not. I lean towards thinking the apparent change is not as locked in or as startling as it reads but I am parsing the rest of the Plan closely and carefully as I think that over. Thanks for adding your voice to this conversation in public, I admire your insights and courage.

  3. As a fan of brevity, I think there is a lot to like about the new one. The only tweak I might suggest is “long term” access or “persistant access.” Preservation isn’t really much more then ensuring future access, so I’m always a fan of working the very concept of preservation itself into how cultural heritage organizations define access.

  4. As I tweeted, I’m not seeing NARA’s employees in the plan the way I hoped I would. That wouldn’t be visible to outside observers, of course. I think the further readers are from NARA in a meaningful sense, on multiple levels, the more likely this plan is to resonate with them. The reasons are complicated and I do not believe the plan intentionally was written with such an effect in mind.

  5. I have two further comments, which I will be submitting through the NARA website:

    First, the word historian appears nowhere in the text. Professional historians are important constituents and are crucial to the stated mission since they facilitate interpretation of dense archival repositories. Historians also have a unique perspective on what constitutes “high value.” I have spent a lot of time looking through old analog records at NARA that are decidedly not high value by anyone’s definition but mine. It would be a shame if such records were truly de-prioritized.

    Second, there is an emphasis in this plan on public-private partnerships and “commercially developed records management and archival applications.” This means things like ancestry.com and fold3.com, which are for-pay services providing access to NARA records. These for-profits are very busily scooping records up, all of which are in the public domain. Each of the last few times I have been in the NARA-II reading room there have been crews there doing this. These companies then charge for access to public records because they have beefed it up with their proprietary search algorithms. This mode of access may be something worth having a discussion and a debate about, rather than accepting outright.

  6. @Trevor Owens- Brevity is not necessarily a bad thing, but mischaracterizing the role and mission of NARA is. Also, it’s a slippery slope conflating preservation and access. I understand that the two are mutually beneficial and often one supports the other, but they do require very different sets of resources (*preservation*- long-term storage of large amounts of data and a means to manage that data and *access*- a technical and descriptive infrastructure that supports easy search and retrieval).

    Overall, I think NARA would do well to revisit its core principles and re-incorporate them into the new strategic plan. You don’t have to be new and different all the time, sometimes doing your decades-old mission *well* is the way to go.

  7. @April: Three data points: (1) Professional historians are not a focus of (and not mentioned) in White House Open Government issuances. (2) Professional historians are not mentioned in NARA’s draft Strategic Plan. (3) Authorship: In-house agency author(s) at NARA crafted this draft plan.

    @Anonymous: I would argue that NARA cannot do its decades-old mission well by sticking to old methods. The agency very much needs a culture change. That said, it must be anchored in core principles that are sustainable.

    As to access and preservation, I agree with your response to Trevor Owens. In addition to what you said, preservation issues begin earlier than do access ones, at the very start of the records life cycle (at creation by the writer). Moreover, there is a psychological component to them. Access depends on what that record creator’s first preservation decision is (delete or retain.) Access depends on even earlier decisions, actually. As John Earl Haynes of the Library of Congress observed in 2003 in discussing the chilling effect, “Records not created are not available, ever, for historical research. “

  8. @April – I completely agree with your concerns over the ‘privatization’ and paid-access model for government records. I know that it’s a big task to digitize things on the scale of government records collections, but I’m not sure that the solution has to require people paying to get access to public domain records.

    Canada has had a few issues with this recently too.



  9. I realize that it’s fashionable to discuss all things digital. It makes what is old seem relevant to the new. At the same time I’m in complete agreement with the principle of this plan in terms of the democratization of the records through digital access.

    However, this is half a plan.

    The primary purpose of an archive is to preserve. It is almost beyond belief that preservation of the original documents is glossed over in the new plan. It’s earthshattering that an agency, which represents the core of national preservation and archives, would simply pretend that digitization is the same as preservation, just because the rest of the world believes the “cloud” is the place to put stuff. How is this document even possibly written by professionals who clearly know that constant migration of digital materials to new formats does not insure their immortality? Neither does boxing up papers by any means; likewise, I’m not forgetting that current documents are born digital. But you are putting on an inexcusable pretense for the public, buying into the instant gratification of the internet, with no concern for preserving the past for the future.

  10. I really don’t like the term “high-value records,” for the same reasons April brings up. I do think we’re supposed to infer that preservation is included but it could be worded better.

    Preservation is mentioned here:
    “Strategic Goal: Maximize NARA’s Value to the Nation
    … We will secure and preserve the records and artifacts that we hold in trust so that current and future generations can use them to promote civic literacy and citizen engagement, document the rights of citizens, learn about American history, and spur innovation that drives economic growth.”

    But given that the Archivist frequently emphasizes the importance of preservation, such as in his recent testimony to Congress, I think it should be more prominent in the plan.

  11. @Anonymous: The due date is today. The draft plan is dated June 4. I wish NARA had posted on its website when it went on the external web page. As a historian, if you look at the page next year, there’s no way to tell from the undated web page how long it actually was available prior to June 28. BTW, I incorporated a link to this post and the comments under it in to the comments I submitted to NARA/SP.

  12. I was disappointed in SAA’s critique although it did include some points that needed to be made. Missing in the SAA submission was awareness at a deep level of the Washington, Federal environment that drives so many issues. Including the budgetary ones. Not something outsiders can assess fully, of course.

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