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How Much Do You Know About the National Security Archive?

February 3, 2014
One of over **** boxes

One of over 4,400 boxes.

By Julia Blase

Julia Blase is a National Digital Stewardship Resident at The National Security Archive.  She quickly discovered that the Archive’s activities include much more than filing FOIA requests and posting documents.  She has compiled a list of the Archive’s various activities, cross-posted on her own blog. How much of this activity were you aware of?

The National Security Archive has a webpage that tells you in more formal language about its mission and people. However, in the past few weeks I’ve begun to see the breadth of their work in a way different from that presented on the webpage, and wanted to share a few of those thoughts!

First off, did you know that the Archive not only collects documents received from the government via FOIA and MDR request, but also accepts archival donations from analysts and researchers in the foreign policy field? The Archive has around 4,400 boxes of archival items, stored off-site, most of which can be accessed by researcher request for viewing in the on-site reading room. I found it difficult to link to the catalog search from the Archive’s webpage, but can tell you how to do it via the George Washington University Gelman library webpage: from the landing page, go to the “Research” tab on the top left of the navigation bar. When you hold the pointer over this tab, you’ll see a list appear; click on the “Classic Catalog” option. This link takes you to the WRLC research page. In the search box, type “National Security Archive,” change “keyword” to “author name,” and hit search. The corporate name, National Security Archive, will appear at the top of your search results with a hyperlinked number next to it. Click on that number and you’ll see all of their physical collections.  Or, for now, just click here! [ed note: Julia’s working to help us get these collections displayed more prominently!]

Also, did you know that the Archive also has a blogtwitter accountand a Facebook page? [ed note: I hope so!] Links to all three can be found (with a bit of work) on their main webpage. The blog includes some great primary documents along with well-written commentary, and has been authored by almost all of the Archive’s employees at one time or another.  The Archive posts real time announcements of publications and blog posts on its Facebook page, and its highly active twitter account links to articles on classification and declassification news, announces when new sources of documents become available to the public,  and serves as a quick stop for those looking for FOIA advice in 140 characters.

Did you know that the Archive’s primary document product is the Digital National Security Archive? This product is a ProQuest database hosting extremely well curated and indexed sets of documents about specific topics, from Iran-Contra to U.S. policy during the Vietnam War. If you click on the link from the Archive’s main webpage, and then click on “Collections Guide” in the top navigation bar, you can see an overview of the collections without even subscribing! To see the actual documents you’ll need to make a trip to whatever library in your area subscribes. These collections take years of work by the analysts followed by a final two-week-to-two-month push by three librarians, who individually index each document before publishing. I know of no other archive that does item-level indexing on such massive collections. Keyword searchers rejoice!

The Archive doesn’t stop there…did you know that you can find more documents, along with analyst commentary, arranged by geographic region under one of two tabs in the top navigation bar of the website: “documents” and “publications?” If you choose “publications,” you’ll have to select “Electronic Briefing Books” as well. Then pick a region (or topic, like the Nuclear History collection) and go exploring! I thought the EBB called “Why is ‘Poodle Blanket’ Classified?” particularly interesting. Who picks code names like “Poodle Blanket?” Read the briefing book and find out! The Archive has done (roughly) 455 EBBs, and I say “roughly” because a new one is always in progress, so I can’t guarantee the same count by the time I publish this blog post.

Dr. Bill Burr of the National Security Archive  and his Emmy, shared with producers Kathleen Toner and Polly Pettit.

Dr. Bill Burr of the National Security Archive and his Emmy, shared with producers Kathleen Toner and Polly Pettit.

And finally, did you know that the analysts at the Archive also travel the world to find documents about the history of US actions abroad? And that our analysts are often called upon to testify as to the contents of their documents in trials of human rights abusers, or in truth commission investigations into past abuses by people and countries? And that we host conferences (scroll down the page to see some of the 2012 participants) to discuss what we can learn from the past and how we can apply that knowledge to our future? And that the analysts are also advocates for a more open government, and experts on filing FOIA requests, who are often asked to speak about the FOIA system to representatives of other governments who are interested in starting or working with their own FOIA-like system? And that the Archive won an Emmy in 2005 for outstanding news and documentary work on “Declassified: Nixon in China,” broadcast in collaboration with ABC News Productions on the Discovery Times Channel? Yep, that last one surprised me too!

There ends my “did you know” post, which I hope was either interesting, or useful, or both. For a quick update on my project with the Archive: I’m just ending the discovery phase and beginning the assessment phase, where I’ll write up a report of what I’ve discovered about the Archive’s collections, workflows, and systems. In this report, I’ll connect what I’ve discovered about the Archive’s digital asset collections, systems and processes with what I’ve learned about the Archive’s functional requirements for those assets. The report will identify both the Archive’s current strengths and also any opportunities for improvement. Hopefully, once the report has been written, delivered, and then discussed by the Archive’s staff, we can begin to implement some of its suggestions!

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