NARA at work declassifying nation's past

Wednesday - 7/27/2011, 9:31am EDT

Sheryl Shenberger, director, National Declassification Center, National Archives and Records Administration

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Working in the federal sector demands reading lots of information, from rules and regulation to research. But imagine going through 30,000-50,000 pages a day.

That's what the government's National Declassification Center is doing. Director Sheryl Sheberger joined the Federal Drive with a progress report on efforts to reduce a backlog of classified documents.

Since it first opened in January 2010, the Center has declassified 117 million documents.

"The only way we've been able to do this is by leveraging across the government the reviewers that do declassification here as a center-wide effort"

The declassification process is two step:

  • The documents are first reviewed page by page by the orginating agency.
  • The Center re-reviews either based on theme, or page by page in case another agency must also be consulted before the document can be declassified.

When the agency first began, the backlog was believed to be 386 million documents. The Center hopes to declassify 100 million documents a year.

"Some pages go faster than others, as you can imagine," Sheberger said. "Within those pages, while we don't want to just do production, we look for special collection to provide special reviews on, because the public has interest in certain things."

Sometimes the Center will get requests for certain documents to be declassified from the public, and will prioritize those requests.

The documents themselves are onion skin, and some are very old. The Center works to ensure that the documents are passed on for archiving as well preserved as possible. Certain documents are scanned so that they can be preserved digitally and made available to the public online. But a lot of the documents stay in hard copy, Sheberger said.

The Center plans on two releases of declassified documents a year. Earlier this year they made available the first authorized release of the Pentagon Papers. Also planned for this year is a collection of documents related to the construction of the Berlin Wall.

"All of these papers are a part of the backlog," Sheberger said.