"Ya Got Trouble (Right Here in River City)"[1]


by Rick Barry[2]


Abstract: This paper formed the basis for abbreviated remarks made to the staff of the National Archives and Records Administration, May 20, 2005, on the occasion of NARA’s celebration of its 20th anniversary of independence. [The abbreviated remarks and those of other speakers may be seen by viewing the NARA Webcast of the celebration.] This somewhat extended version: speaks to some of the challenges ("trouble") facing NARA relating to the use of new technologies in federal agencies; illustrates how information technology is being used in some other organizations; and poses a vision of how Web technology might be employed to assist NARA in its outreach to the public and its research clients. It speaks to the need for change in the process for nominating new Archivists of the US and the need for study of the broader community of heritage institutions in the light of changing technologies and workpatterns and NARA's role in that community. 


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Dr. Weinstein,[3] colleagues and friends in the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA): congratulations on the occasion of NARA’s 20th anniversary as an independent agency.[4] Thank you, for inviting me to share this important remembrance with you and your guests. I am honored to have this opportunity extended to me.


I have been asked to speak to challenges–one might even say trouble—that NARA faces as federal agencies introduce new technologies into the workplace. Though my focus will be on the future, let me begin by saying:  My family has been making trouble for NARA for at least three generations…with probably more to come! It started with my generation in 1960 when I led the automation of the paper-telex-based Armed Forces JOPREP, the Joint Operational Reporting System. The project involved development of a highly structured force-readiness reporting system and punched-paper-tape readers connecting teletype machines to a then-large scientific computer. The system captured thousands of analog cable messages from US Forces globally, converted them to digital files and stored, sorted and summarized them in a database for use by early-morning analysts in preparing daily, force-readiness briefings for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I didn’t know enough to ask your permission or warn you that I was making trouble for you.


My children entered the workplace with personal computers and email in the 1980s, creating more trouble. As a manager, caught up with their likes in my own workplace, this time I started worrying about electronic records, and led an interdisciplinary, interagency UN study team in 1987-89 that offered warnings in its report, Managing Electronic Records: Issues and Guidelines.” [5]


In more recent years, slide presentations have become a staple for that same generation and its successors, many of whom prefer to use bullets with crisp declarations and meaningful graphics rather than the lengthy textual reports well known to their parents.  The story of Boston-based strategic management consulting firm, Bain & Company, illustrates how changing workpatterns can create important new forms of records before managers realize they and their organizations are at risk. Bain discovered a few years ago that it was having difficulty rapidly and effectively responding to client needs and that staff were often unknowingly plowing over old ground in addressing similar client problem environments. It found that, because of changing workpatterns, slide presentations had become a preferred (and often only) format for informing clients of engagement results. Thus, a growing number of Microsoft PowerPoint™ slide presentations had been independently prepared and stored on C-drives and servers in its many offices across the world over the years constituting some of the firm’s principal intellectual products.


Chris Bednar, an observant and enterprising records manager at Bain, quickly realized that these were important corporate records that were not being managed as records or systematically in any other fashion. He got himself involved in Bain’s development of an extensive database of the PowerPoint™ files. It turned out to be among Bain’s most important records assets and knowledge-management resources. How often do government agencies currently use slide presentations to inform management of options for decision-making? How often do these constitute primary or only records of those meetings and decisions? How often are records in these forms properly accessioned as archives?


Now my grandchildren are coming of age to enter the knowledge-based workforce. I once used email to regularly communicate with my oldest granddaughter until she entered college last fall. Then suddenly she stopped answering my mail. At a subsequent family event I asked her why?  She said “I don’t do email any more.”  Don’t DO email? “Sorry, gramps,” she said. “I ‘IM’ now” Not very long ago, if one used the term “IM” in my profession, there was no disputing that it meant “information management.” Not any more. It’s now assumed by a much larger population to mean “instant messaging”.  And they use it as a verb too! My pre-teen grandchildren didn’t follow the same pattern. They started out with free instant messaging, ‘IM’. They don’t do subject lines They…like… speak multiple subjects in a single IM. They don’t assign rich metatags! This means… more trouble! Why? Because IM isn’t kid’s stuff anymore. According to a Pew Internet & American Life Project survey, IM is used by almost a third of American adults[6]. Pew concludes that its use will grow as these creative and timesaving uses of the technology percolate through the generations. In part, because young people have brought IM with them to the workplace, IM is already a preferred form of business communications in some organizations, including at least one on the Fortune Top 10—obviously recordworthy stuff. Some use ‘presence-enabling IM’, which allows participants to learn each other’s location and status real-time—another multi-tasking and productivity tool. It could also be used in archival provenance databases for accountability purposes.


In the wake of 9/11, my grandchildren not yet in high school, like so many others, were given cell phones. It remains to be seen whether text-messaging mobile phones, multi-authoring ‘wikis’, ‘podcasts’ or other new technologies will rise above hype and hip to become serious generators of business records. They could. What would our reaction have been in 1980, had we been asked to imagine a workplace with a personal computer on every desk? Now imagine a future workplace without PCs. There is much consolidation of functionality and packaging among mobile phone, wireless miniature computer tablets with oversized screens and keypads and small-appliance operating system and browser software. If, as some predict, PCs begin to be replaced by smart, wireless, handheld appliances, there will be new business solutions creating and rendering new record forms. More trouble.


“Web logs” or “blogs” originally used as on-line personal journals are now used for such business purposes as crisis management. PR people are seeing the advantage of using client blogs to instantly react to potential crises and nip problems in the bud much faster than is possible with ordinary press releases. Of course, they create important records and…trouble. [See commentaries on blogs by Dan Austen, Jim Horton and David Rothman in the HOT TOPICS/Content Management and Preservation section of MyBestDocs.com. Similarly, interactive Web-enabled seminars (or “Webinars” aka 'Webcasting " and "Web conferencing) used by trade organizations for promoting the latest hot technology, are being seen, as effective ways for distant learning and conducting business meetings to disseminate information to and receive feedback from geographically distributed employees or clients on policy, product and service matters—sometimes creating unique records. We are using that technology here today.


However, technologies don’t just start trouble for recordkeeping.  Often they can constitute solutions. In no small way because of NARA’s involvement, the DoD Records Management Application Standard (5015.2) was created and endorsed by the Archivist for use by the entire federal establishment. Software developers have come to understand that electronic records are something they ignore at their peril.  Even so, most software applications, while significant recordmaking systems still aren’t trustworthy recordkeeping systems and aren’t labeled with “truth-in- recordkeeping” decals. Except in rare cases, such as at the FBI, no one asks the permission of the chief records officer to use them.

The State Archives of Vermont offers another example of how technology is being used to the advantage of archivists.  I reported on this, along with other “Good News Stories” in the Report on the Society and Archives Survey of January 29, 2003. As part of his assertive public outreach program, State Archivist Gregory Sanford informed key members of the State Legislature of the fact that some of the new legislative initiatives that the legislators were considering were on issues that had rich historical precedence in the State. He was invited to make a presentation to interested legislators on one of these. It was so well received that he was asked to come back regularly on other legislative subjects. While a believer in the archival continuum concept of “records of continuing value”, he felt that such terminology would have little resonance with the public. He therefore coined the term “records of continuing issues” to reflect topics that had a way of being recursive on the State’s legislative agenda. Sanford and colleagues put together historical perspectives using records of continuing interest and used Web technology to place such stories on the Vermont State Archives Website. There are now 8 topics included on the State Archives Continuing Issues of Government and Governance page ranging from Impeachment to Vetoes to Villages and Cities. As with the Bain case, this is an excellent example of how technology may be used in ways not just to preserve history but also to tell and make history by helping to bring important historical precedent into current public discourse and policymaking. Also as with Bain, it is clear that technology alone is neither an insurmountable obstacle, nor it is enough. It takes an entrepreneurial, activist leader to envision the use of technology in ways to make a important difference.

Web technologies have certainly created some “trouble” for NARA recordkeeping. It can also help NARA help itself. Let us reflect on a not distant future in which NARA and other heritage institutions capitalize on technology to make all manner of heritage treasures more accessible to the public and other heritage stakeholders.


What might a demanding historian, serious student, or senior citizen enjoying put-off pleasures expect when searching on a computer at home or in a library, on a digital tablet or e-book reader on a train or cruise ship for information on, say, Franklin Delano Roosevelt? Five million search engine hits? No. How about laborious searches to discover the National Archives, National Library, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution and other possible Web-based sources on the subject, each with its own different interface, Website directory structure and information discovery approaches for the user to surmount? I don’t think so. Shouldn’t such users (clients of yours) be able to entertain greater but not unreasonable expectations in this age of technology? Isn’t this especially true for those born since the early 1980s who have never known a world without personal computers, the Internet and the World Wide Web? These are people whose information-seeking habits have been molded by such things as video games, instant messaging, voice recognition systems, videocams, personal computers, personal Websites, blogs and now Web-enabled wireless telephones/ browsers/cameras/computers/what next?


Would it be such a stretch for such persons to want to be presented with a single, carefully crafted, user inspired and visually simple interface showing an information tree of archives, library, museum, parks and other such potential sources on Roosevelt? Would it be unreasonable to wish not to be presented merely with what we might term “information by jurisdiction” where each view is limited to the bureaucratic borders of the different purveyors of Roosevelt’s legacy?


Let’s contemplate a different search experience with one or more information trees that might include branches and leaves for the formal records of FDR’s presidency and tenure as Secretary of the Navy, representations of personal records such as a digital image of his stirring handwritten note, written on his bedside table on the night of September 1, 1939 about the phone call informing him of the German invasion of Poland, and a link to the marvelous Public Vaults exhibit showing the inquisitive reader where s/he might find the real thing? And why not other branches offering selections to the searcher, for example, of a virtual tour of the FDR Memorial at the Tidal Basin, thumbnail portraits of the man, memoirs and biographies some of which might be fully accessible for viewing with an open-source e-book reader[7] again, each one pointing to the physical location where the more magical “real things” can be found? And why not to neighboring information trees? For example, one might lead to a digital portrait of FDR in the National Archives of England, Wales.


Another might tease the searcher to climb different trees in the same information yard, for example, to gain access to the rich record of Eleanor Roosevelt and be led to NARA’s current, wonderful, Web-based “Eleanor and Harry” exhibit of the digitized correspondence between Mrs. Roosevelt and President Harry Truman following the death of FDR, including a letter she wrote to the new President 60 years ago last month in which she said: “There have been thousands of letters, telegrams and cards…that have brought great comfort and consolation to all of us…in view of the fact that we are faced with a paper shortage and are asked not to use paper when it can be avoided…all we can do is to express our appreciation collectively. We would therefore consider it a great favor if you would be kind enough to express our gratitude for us.” Alas, no emails.


Thank all of you who come to work here every day to make such things happen. Thanks also to those who went long before you for making such things possible, because they had the professional skills, political independence, vision, and tenacity to make certain that such letters didn’t disappear or become unreadable pages in places with inappropriate environmental and other controls. Mrs. Roosevelt’s comments about prevailing government requests to avoid using paper during World War II ring true to us today as a continuing issue for different reasons—paperwork elimination, process improvement. Recently, thanks to the assistance of people like NARA archivist Sandy Smith, I’ve had the ghostly experience of holding in my own hands the incredible combat action report of the destroyer USS Blue (DD387), the first ship to escape Pearl Harbor during the attack of December 7, 1941, a ship to which my oldest brother, then Ensign Charles B. Barry, was assigned. that report is also accessible on the Web, thanks to the Naval History Center. [My brother is not mentioned in that report, because like many others of his shipmates, including the Blue's commanding officer, he was on liberty in Waikiki that weekend. By the time he reached Pearl Harbor, the Blue had sailed and he wound up briefly with the rescue team on the battleship, USS Arizona (BB39) and then on the cruiser, USS Detroit (CL8). Like many other dislocated seamen that day, he was reported as missing in action until repatriated with the Blue.] The experience taught me that there is something very real about the materiality of records that comes through so much more in the original paper form than it does on the screen.


Digital archives offer untold new and exciting opportunities for changes in both the delivery of services and in practices. Related institutional change is often difficult, especially when it disrupts organizational culture and familiar patterns of personal work; but sometimes change is for the better.


Digital archives afford opportunities for leveling the playing field for those in the vast majority in our country and the rest of the world who are unable to experience the real thing, who are physically challenged, disenfranchised, too distant to be able to afford a visit to the capital, simply needing a resource in a hurry, or otherwise unable to go to the places where those actual resources, not just virtual representations, reside. However, we should neither count on nor wish for a future in which paper has totally disappeared, even if it becomes economically and technologically feasible to do that. 


I can imagine the tasks of the future appraisal archivist going beyond the macroappraisal of agency business functions and processes and computer-assisted disposition management of records even before they are created. I can imagine it going beyond recording history to creating history through the reappraisal of records earlier sentenced to destruction or deemed of continuing archival value but periodically reevaluated in light of changing times and values. Where an original exists in paper form, possibly with marginalia reflecting comments or disposition, I can see it also including well-reasoned judgments as to which records should be maintained in both paper and electronic forms. Never mind the Charters of Freedom. Who could destroy the original paper forms of Mrs. Roosevelt’s exchanges with Harry Truman? Who could destroy the paper versions, where they existed, of key combat action reports written on the high seas by young officers and typewritten by yeomen remembering the waters of Pearl Harbor grown turbulent by relentless enemy bombing? 


Let us not destroy all of those paper originals. But do make them easily accessible including to disenfranchised, angry young men and women in far away places who see little hope for a free and democratic society of their own. Do this so that they might see not only our weaknesses but also our better and best sides. Help them to put aside their hatred and redirect their energies toward building their own free societies, their own national experiences, and their own heritage icons. Conversely, help us to better understand their proud heritages too by helping them keep their own stories so that they might be brought to our campfires. In these ways, NARA can become a key force on the intellectual battlefield for disarming and turning those alienated from civil society, while reducing our own suspicions about their customs. Perhaps, in the process, we might even reduce the proportion of our national records that remember our wars.


Much of the technology necessary to make such a vision a reality is already available; and, of course, some is already being used.  Intelligent-agent technology and ongoing research in the next generation World Wide Web or intelligent Web will supply further pieces of the puzzle. Obviously such technological interfaces would have to be deployed across the heritage community—no trivial matter. However, the larger challenge would be for our heritage institutions to further develop the necessary organizational cultures and collaboration and generate the necessary institutional will, public support and Presidential and Congressional commitment to make it happen. More trouble.


Needless to say, the kind of scenario outlined above would require much coordination with other heritage organizations; and technology isn’t the only way to achieve more effective delivery of heritage services.  Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK have all paused in recent years, mainly on the occasion of retiring national archivists, to take a fresh whole-heritage-community (archives, libraries, museums) view of what they were doing to better understand and serve their stakeholders. In the cases of Canada and the UK, extensive studies and interviews of their own and other country practices were carried out. 


In Canada, the studies resulted in closer alignment or consolidation of facilities, functions or services for national archives and libraries. What were earlier the separate National Archives and National Library of Canada became Library and Archives Canada (LAC) under a single national archivist and librarian, Ian Wilson, our distinguished, lead-off speaker today. In the appointments of the most recent two Archivists of the US, there were no such deliberations. Indeed, the appointment process has been almost a form of "cruel and unusual punishments[8]" for appointees and an embarrassment to our country as the presidents and Congress under both political parties have ignored the rules of engagement that were created by Congress. Was there even consideration of the role of NARA and how it might change with changing times? Or how other nations have organized in ways to buffer their national archives from political influence from one administration to another? Not since the 1984 Act that we celebrate today. Quoting from another important US archival record, Thomas Jefferson said: “Of the human mind, as that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.”[9] It would appear that the careful roles studies that had been carried out in Ontario and London, including interviews in the US, made greater use of Jeffersonian thinking than we have in recent years in the US.


The US public would be well served not to wait until the next appointment of the leader of one of our national heritage institutions to think through these issues for ourselves. There is more than one way in which to improve services to heritage stakeholders and streamline the operations of our heritage institutions. Such improvements can be achieved by coordination at the policy, standards and information management levels or through physical or organizational consolidation. Let us think about how a common information management architecture, without more structural consolidation, might look to the recipients of heritage information services.


I close with a lesson for today drawn yesterday in your – our – wonderful “Eleanor and Harry” exhibit of the 1945-1960 correspondence between Eleanor Roosevelt and President Harry Truman, that you have made accessible on your Website. It’s one of the many national treasures you safeguard. Thank all of you for all that you do.


In one letter, Harry extended his hand to Eleanor following FDR’s death on April 12, 1945. Fate had robbed him of life just 26 days before Victory in Europe, V-E Day, the 60th anniversary of which we celebrated two weeks ago.  As a young boy, I recall how Roosevelt’s death devastated the nation, especially as fate had robbed FDR of his life at the very moment of victory in Europe only 12 days before the surrender of Army Group B, the last major German unit, 18 days before Hitler committed suicide and 26 days before Truman and Churchill declared V-E Day, Victory in Europe, the 60th anniversary of which we celebrated two weeks ago. Eleanor knew that Harry was in trouble finishing the war in the Pacific, rebuilding Europe, dealing with thorny relations with Russia and managing the difficult return to a peacetime economy back home. Thus, when Harry wrote: “Is there anything I can do for you?” Eleanor was touched. She thought: he hadn’t forgotten that even presidents serve.


In 1950, Truman removed the National Archives from its independent status and placed it under the General Services Administration as the National Archives and Records Service. The National Archives and Records Act of 1984 substituted the word “Service” with the word “Administration” creating NARA’s new name and, more importantly, removed it from its GSA organizational home and reinstated its status as an independent agency. Of course, that Act didn’t legislate service out of NARA’s priorities. While never as weighty as those facing Harry, NARA certainly faces its own awesome challenges: cultural challenges (addressing internal change); social challenges (addressing external change); technological challenges well known to you; professional challenges, providing leadership in the archives and records management community; and any political challenges threatening to the highest archival standards. Nonetheless, you must ask Harry’s question your own way—to your stakeholders: the public, federal agencies, genealogists, historians, journalists, auditors, inspectors general and others, too many of whom rarely acknowledge their dependence on ready access to trustworthy records in their daily work— What can NARA do for you? How will we reply to you? Eleanor’s reply to Harry captures my own sentiments and I’m sure those of all of us here today and records professionals more generally. I hope it also does or will reflect the sentiments of those stakeholder communities, and our President and Congress. At last, we ask your permission, quoting what Eleanor replied to Harry’s question to her: "Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now."



[1] Song title from The Music Man, a musical play written by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey, which premiered on Broadway in 1957.

[2] Richard E. Barry is an Arlington-based information management consultant, author, and content manager of MYBESTDOCS.COM, a widely used source of professional and academic information for information on electronic records. He is a founder of the Open Reader Consortium, the aim of which is to provide a non-proprietary, XML-based, open-source reader for long-term access to digital books and documents, including records. Since retiring in 1992 from the World Bank, where he served as chief of office systems and information services (including the Bank’s archives and records program), his international consulting and workshop practice has included a number of national archivists and other public and private sector clients, including as a project reviewer and project advisory board member for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). He is a member of the Foundation for the National Archives, the Society of American Archivists and the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility.

[3] Dr. Allen Weinstein, Ninth Archivist of the US (2005-.

[4] The National Archives was created as an independent agency by an act of Congress that was signed into law by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1934.  In 1950, President Harry Truman made the National Archives a part of the General Services Administration as the National Archives and Records Service (NARS). After 34 years of reduced status, priority and funding, Congress finally recognized the growing problems with the organization charged with preservation of the nation’s public records and passed the National Archives and Records Act of 1984 National Archives and Records Act of 1984. The Act reinstated the National Archives’ independent status and renamed it the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), effective April 1, 1985.

[5] United Nations Administrative Committee on Coordination of Information Systems (ACCIS - Geneva) Technical Panel on Electronic Records report, Managing Electronic Records: Issues and Guidelines” , UN Sales Office, NY, 1990.

[6] “How Americans Uses Instant Messaging,” Pew Internet & American Life Project survey, September 1, 2004.

[7] See the Open Reader Consortium for information on an open-source reader for e-books and other publications and documents including records that will embrace the The Open eBook Publication Structure (OEBPS) and the forthcoming ISO PDF-A (Archives) standard.

[8] This is a common American satirical reference to the provision in the US Bill of Rights of 1791 as included in the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution that, drawing directly on the English Bill of Rights of 1689, provides that "excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."  

[9] Inscribed on the wall of the Jefferson Memorial, Washington, DC. Digital photo by R. E. Barry