Tale of Two Archives: NARA and LAC

nara-logoOn Wednesday night David Ferriero, the National Archivist of the United States, inspired us with stories about how an archive can become central to the national fabric. His I.P. Sharp Lecture at the iSchool, University of Toronto was memorable and instructive on so many levels.

After less than 5 years on the job (having been previously at NYPL, Duke, and MIT) Ferriero had a mandate to shake the place up. And did he ever.

With a renewed focus on citizen engagement, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has done stunning work with social media and citizen engagement. And the results demonstrate it. Their online catalogue got 7M views in 2013; linking up with Wikipedia to include NARA content (and do they have content!) on Wikipedia pages resulted in 1.3B (yes billion) page views during the same year. Go where the people are. What a simple yet effective strategy.

What was refreshing about Ferriero’s talk was not the great stories about famous people (Whitman, Emerson, Elvis) and the documents pertaining to them in the NARA collections. And it was not even the sales pitch he clearly has for the value of the archives (which was quite compelling). What was truly impressive was his commitment to making NARA a resource and service for the American people. For the average citizen. It is their stuff. It’s their record. It’s their institution.

I know lots of archives have that sort of attitude and approach. But to see it professed and actually accomplished at what is a ginormous institution is very impressive. It comes as no surprise that their new strategic plan is called “Being Bold“. There is some real (and effective) attitude here! Ferriero references himself as the “Collector in Chief”, his blog is called AOTUS  (a wonderful riff on POTUS), and he is active on Twitter @dferriero.

Ferriero has set a very large and tradition-bound ship on a new course. He has proven that institutions must (and can) change dramatically.

Leadership makes a difference. Creating a mandate, and letting visionary people run with it, makes a difference. Responding to real, average citizens, makes a difference.

NARA is making a difference in the lives of Americans. I wish I could say the same about Library and Archives Canada.

The leadership vacuum continues at LAC. Average Canadians are paying the price.


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