Carlin goes the distance for NARA

Eight billion pieces of paper in three million cubic feet of storage. Four billion logical data records, along with 35 million still pictures, 18 million aerial photographs, 5 million maps and charts, 207,000 sound recordings and 93,000 motion picture films. Not to mention the Declaration of Independence.

The responsibilities of the National Archives and Records Administration are daunting by any standard. In charge of managing the essential documents that define America, the independent federal agency also responds to more than 13 million government and 2 million public requests for information annually.

All this is done under the critical scrutiny of stakeholders that include other agencies, historians, attorneys, journalists, veterans and lots of people trying to find their long-lost relatives.

John Carlin, named this year to the GCN Hall of Fame, was appointed the ninth chief archivist in 1995. He took over an agency with serious challenges, including swelling volumes of records requiring costly space, increasing user requests and the swiftly changing technological landscape.

Furthermore, his appointment was opposed outright by some who felt that his lack of specific experience as an archivist was a disadvantage.

But Carlin had a lot of other ex- periences. He served as a Kansas state representative, including three years as speaker of the House. He was governor of Kansas for eight years, during which he made significant contributions to the state’s historical preservation efforts.

He taught at several colleges, including the University of Kansas, Wichita State University, Duke University and Washburn University. He also was CEO of a high-tech startup in Kansas.

That varied background illustrates a flexibility and capacity for dealing with change, which would be necessary at NARA. “Change was essential at that time,” Carlin said.

Under his leadership, NARA created a long-term strategic plan. A cornerstone of that plan was to identify the important outside stakeholders in the agency, let them know their concerns were important, and include their views in future considerations.

“We found him ready to listen to our concerns and engage in shared objectives,” said William J. Maher, former president of the Society of American Archivists.

“I found Mr. Carlin to be exceptionally receptive to ar- chival concerns from the SAA. I especially appreciated how he would always not only return our phone calls, but listen and consider our suggestions.”

At the same time, it was the stability of Carlin’s tenure that made that change possible. “I made it clear to people that I wasn’t just passing through,” he said. “Too often, agency employees feel that the changes will last only as long as the person at the top. I wanted people to know that it would be safe for them to commit to a long-term program.”

Indeed, Carlin’s 10-year tenure as chief archivist is the second longest in agency history, and the longest since 1965.

One result of the strategic plan has been the consolidation of NARA facilities, to reduce storage costs. And, regional facilities, which had once been the source of complaints from the public, now receive praise and thanks.

Perhaps the centerpiece of the strategic plan is the Electronic Records Archives project to store records in easily accessible formats. Launched in 1998, ERA started with three years of research to understand the issues and possibilities of converting to electronic records.

This year, the agency issued contracts to Lockheed Martin Corp. and to Harris Corp. of Melbourne, Fla., to compete to provide a viable access system.

After a yearlong evaluation, the agency will choose a winner and start building the system. The goal is a functional subset of the system by 2007.

Electronic-records challenges

Carlin “has consistently supported electronic records initiatives and has made archival attention to these issues a high priority of NARA,” said Randall C. Jimerson, current president of SAA. “The Electronic Records Archives marks an important effort to respond to the challenges of maintaining reliable electronic records and the inherent technological difficulties they pose.”

At its annual meeting in August, the Society of American Archivists presented Carlin with the Council Exemplary Service Award, citing among other accomplishments his work in “developing solutions for long-term preservation of and access to electronic records through the Electronic Records Archives program.”

Carlin readily admits that he isn’t an expert in the technologies involved. “I am fortunate to have inherited—and attracted—smart and talented experts,” he said. He sees his role more as a manager, organizer, coach and cheerleader, rather than as a technical expert.

He sees the GCN Hall of Fame honor as a tribute to NARA and its workers, and said he hopes it brings deserved attention to the agency’s accomplishments, and provides encouragement for the tasks to come.

As for Carlin, he has announced his retirement from NARA, but is staying on until a successor is confirmed. He said he’s not sure of his next step, and for now is still concentrating on the work of NARA.

“Each day I’m here,” he said, “is another day to get things done.”

Edmund X. DeJesus of Norwood, Mass., writes about IT.

About the Author

Connect with the GCN staff on Twitter @GCNtech.


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