ARCHIVED: Joint Letter Commenting on Draft Strategic Plan of the National Archives and Records Administration, 2007-2017

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July 21, 2006

The Honorable Allen Weinstein
Archivist of the United States
National Archives and Records Administration
700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20408

RE: Comments on Draft Strategic Plan of the National Archives and Records Administration, 2007-2017

Dear Dr. Weinstein:

On behalf of the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL), we are pleased to submit comments on NARA's draft 2007-2017 Strategic Plan by first thanking you for contacting us and other interested stakeholders with an invitation to offer input. AALL is a non-profit educational organization with over 5,000 members nationwide. Our mission is to promote and enhance the value of law libraries to the legal and public communities, to foster the profession of law librarianship, and to provide leadership in the field of legal information and information policy.

We very much appreciate this opportunity because we have long been involved in legislative and policy efforts to ensure that all levels of government properly manage the entire life cycle of electronic government information. We were honored to have you speak at the Town Meeting on E-Life Cycle Management during our annual conference in St. Louis, and we welcomed your remarks about NARA's progress with the Electronic Records Archives (ERA).

Overall, we are very pleased with this draft Strategic Plan. It properly recognizes that e-Government is growing exponentially as government entities rely more on "born digital" and "digital only" materials. AALL's specific concerns with e-Government relate to the need to authenticate, preserve and provide permanent public access to digital government information. We are pleased that the plan notes NARA's "primary responsibility to the challenge of authentically preserving electronic records free of specific hardware and software and providing access to these records in the future" through the ERA.

In addition, we are very impressed with the way in which you have incorporated a plan to help agencies understand their responsibilities and set up systems for managing their electronic records. It would be helpful, in addition to your educational outreach and technological support, to have some means of ensuring agency compliance. Getting agencies to transfer their records to NARA on a timely basis according to their records schedules clearly has been a challenge in the print world and will remain one in the future.

We are especially gratified to note the importance you place on eliminating the backlog of classified holdings; eliminating the backlog of written requests, specifically FOIA requests; expeditiously processing your holdings to make them available to the public as soon as legally possible; and last but not least, representing the public interest in seeing that material is not classified or otherwise closed unnecessarily or longer than necessary (page 12). Public access to government information is at the very core of our democracy, and we thank you for your leadership and personal commitment to keeping the public informed about the workings of their government.

All in all, the draft Strategic Plan sets out a very ambitious course for the future, particularly for the ERA, and we applaud its scope and comprehensiveness. We also are pleased that you have articulated measurable outcomes in Section IV that will help NARA reach its goals. We do, however, have three specific concerns.

First, while we applaud NARA's emphasis on collaboration and dedication to its mission, we urge you to continue to work closely with the Government Printing Office (GPO) and the Library of Congress (LC) to ensure that there is no duplication of efforts or resources. Clearly each institution serves a different and unique mission. It is crucial that you work together collaboratively. Millions of federal taxpayer dollars are spent on digital preservation efforts so sharing information about models and best practices for storage and retrieval of electronic information should be on-going. We also urge you to work with GPO (see GPO's Information Dissemination Implementation Plan: Priorities for Digitization of Legacy Collection, Sept. 15, 2005) and LC in the area of digitizing historic materials to avoid duplication. We encourage you to seek public comment from your stakeholders to help you determine priorities for your digitization projects.

Second, the draft plan properly points out that "NARA alone is the archives of the Government of the U.S., responsible for safeguarding records of all three branches of the Federal Government" (page 9). Concerns were raised during the recent Town Meeting in St. Louis about the threat to federal civil court records held by NARA regional offices and the destruction of federal bankruptcy court records. The law library community is pleased that in fall 2005, NARA and the University of Missouri—Kansas City School of Law co-hosted a conference entitled, NARA Federal Civil Court Records: Virgin Territory for Empirical, Historical and Legal Research and Curriculum Design. The purpose of the conference was to inform legal historians, social scientists, educators, and experts from the emerging field of empirical legal research about NARA federal court records, explore their potential uses in research, and discuss the use of such materials in curriculum design. The preservation of federal civil court trial records and bankruptcy court records is important for legal empirical research. These records have an important and unique role in our national and local experience and history.

Third, the plan refers to "partnerships" including those with organizations outside government, and we urge caution. In your haste to partner with various entities, NARA might give up too much control. Although we do recognize that in certain areas your operations conform to the business model (Section IV, item 1.3: Federal Records Center Profitability), your mission to "safeguard and preserve the records of our Government, ensuring that the people can discover, use, and learn from this documentary heritage" cannot be both a "vital obligation" (p. 7) and a profitable one.

We are concerned in particular about cooperative agreements with non-government entities in which they, as NARA partners, would be the sole providers of access to NARA holdings. This is alluded to several times in the draft plan (for example, p. 15, D "We will publish descriptions of our archival holdings in an online catalog, including those holdings hosted by our digitization partners...." (emphasis added). In our letter to you dated July 6, 2006, we and other national library associations expressed deep concern about the ownership—both physical and legal—of the underlying documents and the subsequent digital data files of historic films in NARA's custody that have been digitized by Google. We strongly believe that such ownership must remain with NARA and the U.S. Government, and we were pleased to hear in St. Louis that you agree. We look forward to further discussions with you and your staff on this matter. NARA's holdings belong to all citizens, and we strongly urge you to ensure that both physical and legal ownership of the files remain with the U.S. Government through NARA or another governmental agent.

In closing, we commend you and your staff for setting out a very ambitious ten-year plan through which NARA will achieve its mission and ensure that tomorrow's citizens will be able to access the records of our government, especially those created today in electronic formats. Your plan cannot be achieved without full support from Congress and the cooperation of entities in all three branches of government. As in the past, AALL stands ready to educate members of Congress about the vital importance of NARA's work and we are committed to helping you get the annual level of appropriations needed to implement this plan. We appreciate your outreach to AALL and other professional communities, and we look forward to assisting you as you move forward to implement the 2007-2017 Strategic Plan. Thank you very much.

Sincerely,

Keith Ann Stiverson
Chair, AALL Government Relations Committee
kstivers@kentlaw.edu

Mary Alice Baish
AALL Associate Washington Affairs Representative
baish@law.georgetown.edu