National Archives launches redesigned under open government plan

Today the National Archives launched its redesign of redesign.

“It’s essential for the National Archives to have a user-friendly online presence,” said Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero in a prepared statement. Ferriero is the first Archivist to blog, tweet (@dferriero), and launch a Facebook page. “We hope to reach new audiences while still engaging our long-time users, researchers and visitors. This redesign – part of the National Archives flagship Open Government Initiative – reflects the ongoing effort to engage the public and make records of the National Archives easier to find and use.”

If you’re not following the work of the National Archivist, today is a good day to reflect on his progress and the importance of his work. Reflect on what he told the New York Times:

How many digitized records should be available online? “If I had my way,” he replied, “everything.”

The Obama administration has also given the National Archives responsibility for reviewing the declassification of 400 million pages of secret documents by the end of 2013.

Mr. Ferriero’s goal, he said, is “to ensure that we have the user at the center of our thinking — historians, genealogists, open government folks. What can we do to make their lives easier?”

Each of these flagship initiatives, many of which are listed at the open government innovations gallery, are supposed to deliver upon the signature elements of each agency’s mission. In terms of the National Archives, the redesign was “intended to encourage online user participation in the redesign of our website.” Does it deliver?

Here’s the old design of

The research that preceded the redesign looked at what people do when they come to and what they do there.

Here are the results of the National Archives’ data analysis of “customers”:

How frequently do you visit this site?
69% First time
14% Every 6 months or less
9% About once a month
5% About once a week

In what role are you using the web site today?
30% Veteran or Veteran’s family
23% Genealogist or family historian
14% Educator or student
14% Researcher

What were you primarily looking for today?
28% Historical Documents
25% Veterans’ Service Records
19% Genealogy or family history information
9% Other

How would you most like to interact with this site?
41% Bookmark or tag pages
35% None
15% Receiving newsletters/email updates
8% Watching Vodcasts or video

The new was based in part on that feedback and user need:

On first glance, and after some time clicking around, the answer is a qualified “yes.” This version of the redesign came about through a vote on the homepage design using Ideascale and in-person events, receiving in total some 3,257 votes. The redesign includes streamlined access to historical documents and military service records, an important improvement, given the eye-opening statistic that 81 percent of visitors are looking for this information.

The new design is cleaner, features clearer organization of content and loaded more quickly on my mobile device. The search field, one of the critical features of any modern website, is larger and raised to greater prominence in the redesign. I don’t see a mobile version of the site yet, and there is as of yet “no app for that,” unlike, say, the Library of Congress. That may change.

With respect to another stated aim of the project, the redesign does prominently display the social media accounts, although in muted colors that, while fitting look and feel, don’t catch the eye. No social content is featured on the homepage or the dedicated section, though it’s not hard to find those accounts on the master list of social media. There are some real gems to be fond in there, particularly in the NARA Flickr feed.

Archives Wiki: Our Archives Wiki
Blog – NARAtions, the U.S. National Archives: Blog - NARAtions, the U.S. National Archives
Facebook – US National Archives: Facebook - US National Archives
Flickr – US National Archives Photostream: Flickr - US National Archives Photostream
RSS Feed – News from the U.S. National Archives: RSS Feed - News from the U.S. National Archives
Twitter – @ArchivesNews: Twitter - @archivesnews
YouTube – US National Archives Channel: YouTube - US National Archives Channel

There are a host of other accounts in there for regional archives, presidential libraries or specific topics. For more on the back story behind the design, read over the minutes from last month’s researcher meeting:

The website was last updated several years ago. This time, we are revising it to focus on tasks that people are trying to accomplish when they come to our website.

We collected information from researchers on what you wanted in a variety of ways over several months including asking staff, researchers, veterans, patrons in line at exhibits, etc. This is part of Open Government from December 2009. The Flagship initiative is to redesign by matching the needs of all users (researchers, educators, students, and those just browsing to see the founding documents).

We have the new website categorized into sections. There are five main sections: veterans, researchers, educators and students, locations, and our online store.

Other pages will focus on genealogy, Congress, records preservation, Federal records managers, publications, offices in NARA, and information about us in general. It also includes an agency index, FAQs, and social media (e.g., blogs like NARAtions and AOTUS).

The research section has basic information on how to do research at each of the facilities and links to specific topics like the Civil War.

The new website rolls out next month in December. This is the first phase of the redesign. The focus is on the home page, researchers, veterans, education, and will then move onto other areas.

The 1940s census will be available online in 2012 spring.

“Hire a Researcher” will still be available. All content will migrate over. You do not need to resubmit information. All current information will come over. If you need to resubmit information, we will let you know. We do an annual contact check to revise the list.

This is a significant improvement and one that the Archives staff should be commended upon. If you have feedback, they’ve made it clear that they’re listening: comment on the NARAtions Blog or write to

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.


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