Conversations with the Archivist of the United States
David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States
Interviewed by Paul Holdengraber, Director, Public Programs, New York PL
10th Archivist of the US. Former Director of the NYPL. Blog – AOTIS: Collector in Chief.
Funny riff on the meaning of aotis. David comments, “Are we going to get to the meat of this?”
D: Great deal of misunderstanding about what the Archivist does. Most people think he’s part of the LoC. Not so. responsible for the records of the US Government. Provide oversight and advice to agencies. Presidential libraries are part of the National Archives. Is an independent agency.
P: You have 44 facilities? You had 45 in the NYPL. Bit of a demotion.
(Paul’s hilarious. Lots of laughter.)
D: 150 days into the job – steep learning curve. Trying to get a sense of the staff and their needs. Annual employee survey; archives rank second to last in employee satisfaction. Finds very disturbing and wants to change.
P: How significant is it for the archivist to be a librarian?
D: I’m the highest ranking librarian in the administration. (applause) Of course, I’m the only librarian.
P: Why is it important that the archivist be a librarian? And why do you think Obama chose you?
D: Sitting in my office and my assistant came in and said “The White House is on the phone.” He had been considered for the IMLS position, so wasn’t too surprised. Was told he was being considered for archivist. Was very suprised by that.
Convinced to come to Washington to have a bigger conversation about the job. Became convinced that he could make a difference. “The President called from Saudi Arabia, and he wants you to be the Archivist of the United States.”
P: The administration has charged you with the National Declassification Center, with 400million pages that need to be declassified over the next four years. How are you going to go about doing that? And the other initiative is the Open Government initiative. Tell us about that.
D: The Open Government initiative is for agencies to be more transparent, built by the agencies themselves. It unleashed a set of competencies and talents in the agencies that hadn’t been used before. A large part of that is social networking. Controversial – to create citizen archivists.
At the end of December, the President issued another Executive Order around declassification. There is an enormous backlog of information that needs to be declassified. Only criterion by which it can remain classified is national security. Currently 2400 classification guides. Needs to be consolidated.
P: So Obama picks you and you’re excited to come to be the archivist. What kind of influence does the administration have over the archives?
D: The reason I’m so excited about the open government is that you can’t have open government without good records. Need good records management. Records need to be migrated through various technologies. When IT systems are developed in the agencies, it must be with records management in mind, not as an afterthought.
One of his heroes is Robert Connor, 1st archivist of US. Convinced agencies to deposit records in archives. Agencies are now creating their own digital archives. My job is to digest all that stuff. Need to corral the records being created in electronic form. I’ll let you know how that works.
P: Quotes Keith Rogers of the Rolling Stones. “The public library is a great equalizer.” You’re trying to oxygenate the archives. Tell us about that.
D: Oh, Lord. For years, I heard about oxygenate. (laughter)
For 50% of New Yorkers, the library is the only place to access the internet. All of the social programs were very important. Now trying to find ways to open up the archives in ways that they’ve never been opened up before.
We have a robust education and exhibit program, the website is being blown up and redesigned as we speak with lots of content with the K-12 audience in mind. Creating a program on the Civil War. Getting kids excited about the records is a way to teach history but also citizenship.
We have lots of tours, kids standing in line to see the Declaration of Independence. They have wonderful questions about the documents.
P: You didn’t quite answer the question about how influential Obama might be. Have you met him?
D: No. It’s nice having a boss down the street but not in my face. (much laughter)
P: While the government was closed, you spent some time with staff.
D: Who knew it was so easy to close the government? 4 and a half days we were shut down. I learned how dedicated the staff is. Our sidewalks were better cleared than anyone else’s. I also read the detail of the Lockheed contract. Spoke with the guards about what they were guarding. Discovered that the guards had never had a tour of the archives. We’re arranging that now.
P: You gave a talk entitled “Losing our Memory” and you said we need to save better and preserve more, and not the other way around.
D: We’re not saving, and that’s a problem, especially with electronic records.
Federal electronic mail is still not recognized as a record.
P: You’ve expressed concern about digitizing legacies, especially Ancestry.com.
D: It’s become an industry standard that these large commercial digitization projects have developed language that locks up content for a time. For Ancestry, it’s 5 years. These are public records. I’m concerned about locking them up for periods of time. I recognize the value and the investment that commercial vendors are bringing to the project, but it bothers me to lock it up. We’re coming up on our contract with Ancestry, and we’ll have to decide how we’re going to deal with that.
I do a lot online. I’m a big reader. There’s something aesthetic about print on page that has not been replaced electronically. I get a lot of information online. But when I’m reading, I need the print.
P: One of your favorite writers is Nicholson Baker. Please talk about him and the struggle to preserve him. Wrote “Discarding.”
D: I was opening Duke’s remote storage facility and I invited Nicholson Baker to speak. Librarians were circling the wagon against him, because of his criticism of the profession. He had rescued the physical newspapers from some libraries, had established himself as a newspaper librarian and had stored them in New Hampshire.
Two years later, Baker gave the collection to Duke. It’s heavily used, especially by undergraduates in their history class.
P: What are you reading now?
D: This is embarrassing. “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.” (Huge laughter and applause.) Bought it at an airport book store. The kid at the counter tells him, “You know, this is all true.” (Even bigger laugh on that one.)
Also just finished a book about Walt Whitman and Mrs. Whitman.
P: What is your greatest burden? What keeps you up at night?
D: It’s the electronic records.
P: Your greatest joy?
D: A balance between getting to know the staff and the job itself. My jaw just drops sometimes.
P: To the librarians here today, what recommendation do you make to them? What should they pay attention to most?
D: Push your supervisors. Get your ideas out there. The guys at the top need to be pushed.
P: Who do you look to?
D: One of my best hires is a guy named Josh Greenburg. I learned so much from him.
P: You have said that the only next job for you is the Vatican.
D: People have really misinterpreted that. People have asked, “Why would you want to go to the Vatican Library?” I’m not talkin’ about the library.