24 December 2009

Mission of the National Archives: Museum or Access Agency?

On Wednesday, 16 December 2009, the Information Policy, Census and National Archives subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing on the Mission of the National Archives.

The participants on the first panel were Dr. James H. Billington, Librarian of Congress, G. Wayne Clough, Secretary of The Smithsonian Institution, and new United States Archivist, David S. Ferriero. Each participant submitted a written statement and delivered a five-minute summary. Mr. Ferriero’s written statement has been posted on the NGS website at http://www.ngsgenealogy.org/cs/NARA_hearing. Although we were there to present the concerns of the genealogical community, the subcommittee was most interested in preventing security breaches and making sure the Archivist develops a plan for preserving and safeguarding the electronic records of the many government agencies. The Archivist was also asked a series of follow up questions about delays in responding to FOIA, requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act.

The purpose of the first panel was to hear how the other two institutions balanced conflicting demands for resources from their many different user groups. Members of the subcommittee asked questions about strategic plans and measurement of plan accomplishments. Subcommittee member Eleanor Holmes Norton, representative from the District of Columbia, clearly supports museum expansion of the National Archives. If you live in the District, you need to write Ms. Norton and remind her that many genealogists visit Washington, D.C. every year and spent tourist dollars.

The genealogical community was represented on the second panel by Jan Alpert, President of the National Genealogical Society. The oral statement she delivered and the full written statement presented to the subcommittee are available on the NGS website in their entirety. The Records Preservation and Access Committee (RPAC) and the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) prepared written statements, which were acknowledged by Chairman Clay but not accepted into the record by the clerk due to a strict interpretation of House protocol. Their written statements together with a statement prepared by the NARA User’s Group and supported by a number of area genealogical societies were presented on Thursday at a follow-up meeting at NARA. Those three additional statements have been posted on the NGS website so that, as interested genealogists, you can be brought up to date on all the issues.

Other participants on the second panel included Anne L. Weisman, Chief Counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Kevin M. Goldberg, legal counsel for the American Society of News Editors, and Carl Malamud, founder and president of Public.Resource.Org. Although we access different records at the National Archives than these organizations, we share some similar interests. We all want accessible hours, availability to make requests online, better response times, and more digitization of the records at NARA.

Based upon the questions from members of the subcommittee and responses from new Archivist Ferriero, it appears that there will be subsequent hearings on issues affecting the National Archives. We will keep you advised through this blog.