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10 Billion Documents, 1 Day at a Time

The United States National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has turned to Tumblr in an effort to make its collection of over ten billion historical documents more accessible. Since 1934, the Archives have protected the country’s most precious documents, including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Emancipation Proclamation. As “America’s record keeper,” the agency also keeps track of the American government’s daily business. Every federal office is required to report their activities in detail to the NARA, whose staff is then responsible for deciding which of these materials will be saved and made public. This means the Archives are continually growing. Only about 1-3% of documents submitted annually make the cut, and those that do can affect the shape of contemporary politics as well as historical memory.

Accordingly, the NARA faces the constant threat of politicization as an independent agency responsible for federal oversight. The Archives clashed with the Clinton administration when one of the President’s advisors, Sandy Berger, stole and destroyed NARA documents related to terrorist plots. During the second Bush presidency, the Archives were accused of weakness in their negotiations with the executive branch over access to public records; the New York Times said they could use some “spine-stiffening.” Bush’s administration defended their practices on grounds of national security.

More recently, on his first day in office in 2009, President Obama issued a letter to all federal agencies and departments calling for “transparency and open government.” He urged the use of “new technologies to put information about [goverment] operations and decisions online and readily available to the public.” Proclaiming “[i]nformation maintained by the Federal Government … a national asset,” this transparency memo prompted major internal changes at the National Archives.

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