Colleen Shogan, the Archivist of the United States, highlighted the forward-thinking initiatives of the National Archives at a public forum. Hosted at the Seattle Public Library and led by Microsoft president Brad Smith, the event shed light on the institution’s digital transition, and the role of artificial intelligence (AI) in archiving.
One groundbreaking project involves training an AI bot to extract DD-214 forms, which summarize individual military records. This initiative is expected to efficiently cull records from vast digital files, allowing human staff to address more intricate tasks. Additionally, in an effort to streamline responses to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, there is ongoing work to utilize AI for the automatic redaction of personal information. This innovative approach to digitization and data management showcases the potential synergy between historical institutions and modern technology.
Advancing digital platforms
The Archives is not only focusing on internal processes but also on public engagement. Recognizing the significance of major events, such as Juneteenth, the institution collaborated with social media influencers to produce content for platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter. In celebration of the upcoming 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 2026, the Archives is also collaborating with Microsoft to offer an interactive exhibit. This exhibit will harness the capabilities of AI to provide visitors with a curated experience, tailoring recommendations based on their interests.
Of the over 13.5 billion pages of records housed by the National Archives, approximately 250 million have been digitized. With a vision for accessibility, the goal is set at digitizing 300 million records, with an eventual aim of reaching half a billion. However, Colleen Shogan emphasized the importance of format sustainability during this digital transition, noting the importance of choosing formats that aren’t restricted to transient software.
A new era of archiving
The modern age has also ushered in a rise in documents that are “born digital”. Recognizing this shift, the National Archives is working to preserve records in their native digital format, eliminating the need for scanning print documents. This strategy showcases a forward-thinking approach to the future of archiving.
Having been sworn in as the eleventh Archivist of the United States in May 2022, Shogan’s academic background in political science and roles at prestigious institutions like the White House Historical Association and the Library of Congress underpin her qualified leadership. Her Seattle visit held symbolic significance, reaffirming support for the Seattle office of the National Archives, a facility that faced potential closure in 2020. With 150 million records, the Seattle office boasts a diverse collection ranging from tax records to World War II photographs. Among the treasured holdings is the record of the 1971 D.B. Cooper plane hijacking, a particular interest to Shogan.
In a lighthearted moment of the evening, an audience question about the handling of misplaced documents led to laughter, with Shogan humorously hinting at recent news of classified documents found at former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.