Moving Toward a User-Centered National Archives Shogan Covers Over 32,000 Miles in First Year, Prioritizing Access & Engagement

By Angela Tudico 


One year after taking her oath of office, the Archivist of the United States Dr. Colleen Shogan is forging ahead with plans to strengthen the National Archives connection with all Americans today and for the future. 

In her first 12 months, Shogan has traveled more than 32,000 miles and visited nearly three-quarters of NARA’s facilities, including 10 of the 15 Presidential Libraries. “It has been an exciting whirlwind of a year getting out to meet our staff and delving into the breadth and depth of what we do across the nation,” Shogan said, noting that the National Archives has over 2,600 employees spread across 42 facilities in 15 states and the District of Columbia.

Through her site visits and extended discussions with National Archives staff and external stakeholders, Shogan has identified several critical priorities that she is now addressing. “Our job at the National Archives is to preserve, protect, and share the history of the United States. We do this to cultivate public participation and strengthen our democracy. The National Archives is very good at what we do! But to succeed in the future, we must evolve to meet the demands of the digital age and the expectations of our users.”

Shogan’s top priority for the agency is access. The National Archives has more than 13.5 billion analog records in its holdings, making it the largest publicly accessible government archive in the world. However, only about 2 percent of the historic holdings have been digitized and made available online. Noting that “the records aren’t useful if people don’t have access to them,” Shogan has challenged the agency to find innovative, creative ways to make more records discoverable at a much faster pace.  

NARA celebrated a big victory for access in January, with the elimination of the pandemic-related backlog of military personnel records requests at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, MO. As she promised Congress during her nomination process, Shogan prioritized this effort, approving overtime, new technology, and other special measures to accelerate the agency’s response. “The backlog of requests for veterans records constituted my most important challenge when I came to the National Archives last year,” Shogan said. “The elimination of that backlog in January was an amazing achievement! There is no better example of NARA’s mission than providing veterans and their families with timely access to their personnel records, and I’m proud that we could come together and improve how we do that.”

NARA is also taking steps to significantly increase its general digitization efforts, including opening a new state-of-the-art digitization center at the National Archives at College Park this April. Shogan called the center a game-changer. “With new high-speed scanners and a dedicated team of digitization staff . . . [the center] provides us a 10-fold increase in our in-house scanning capacity and will help us make millions of original records accessible online for Americans everywhere.” 

However, digitization is only a part of the strategy to increase access. Shogan has also prioritized the development of a sustainable, scalable long-term plan for digital transformation. She has created a cross-agency working-group focused on improvements to NARA’s IT infrastructure, and the usability and functionality of the online Catalog. Work is underway to enhance record description and metadata creation to improve search functionality, and increase staff capabilities to manage and share electronic records. And the agency is actively exploring artificial intelligence tools to streamline and accelerate operations, including FOIA review and record processing.  

“I want to make the National Archives as user friendly as possible,” Shogan regularly tells staff and stakeholders. She has focused attention on visitor services, customer satisfaction, and outreach and engagement. “Our goal is to provide visitors with the best possible experience and to help connect them with the nation’s records,” Shogan said. “The National Archives belongs to the American people, and we need to do everything we can to make them feel at home when they visit us—in-person and online.”

To that end, the National Archives is reimagining its public exhibits and developing an updated visitor experience at the National Archives Building in Washington DC, with increased visitor services staff, new museum galleries, and a repeal of a long-standing prohibition on photography. In June, less than a month into her tenure, Shogan announced that the Emancipation Proclamation would be added to the National Archives Rotunda, with the Charters of Freedom. “Together, they tell a more comprehensive story of the history of all Americans and document progress in our nation’s continuous growth toward a more perfect Union,” she said.  Shogan reopened the permanent exhibit gallery at the National Archives at Kansas City, provided additional resources for the presidential library system, and increased community engagement across the agency. 

Shogan has also initiated a comprehensive review of the National Archives education and public programming. “We . . . have a special obligation to help kids who are learning about American history and civics,” Shogan declared during her swearing-in ceremony. “The National Archives should be a first stop for all teachers and students, and we will double-down on creating useful, engaging materials for the classroom.” A signature National Archives virtual program is under development, with a goal of debuting the new offering in the fall.

Maximizing in-person experiences and growing visitor services, along with becoming a national leader in civics and history education, are central themes as the National Archives prepares for America250 , the United States Semiquincentennial marking the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. As the home of the Declaration of Independence, Shogan expects the National Archives to take a leading role in the nation’s celebration over the next two years. 

Overall, Shogan’s vision for the National Archives is clear. “We are an essential building block of democracy,” she said during a fireside chat in March. “Records are our basis for holding our government accountable and providing transparency. It is not a nice thing to have. It’s not something that should be an afterthought. It is a necessity.”