About the National Archives

Remarks of Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero at the commencement exercises of the University of Arizona School of Information Resources and Library Science, Tucson.

May 13, 2011

Who is the Archivist?

David S. Ferriero
David S. Ferriero The Archivist of the United States is the head of our agency, appointed by the President of the United States.

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What's an Archivist?

It is quite an honor to be invited to deliver a commencement address and a very special honor, indeed, to do so at the invitation of my esteemed colleague, Tom Wilding.  And it is especially fitting that my first ever commencement address be at a graduate school of information resources and library science—a field near and dear to my heart!
 
As important as you are today, dear graduates, the folks sitting behind you are even more important. Covering your back today--as they have for some time as you progressed through your program—are family, friends, faculty, and fellow students.  Please give them all a shout out of thanks!

For me, this is a special opportunity to see the faces of the folks who will be leading my field in the years to come.  And I like what I see!

Having sat through more graduation ceremonies than most of you have years, let me start by telling you that I have taken to heart Franklin Roosevelt’s speechifying advice:  I WILL BE SINCERE, I WILL BE BRIEF, AND I WILL BE SEATED.

Way back in last century, more than 35 years ago, I was sitting where you are—getting ready to graduate with my degree in library science. So in preparing for this talk, I tried to take myself back to that day, and to think about what I wished I had heard from my commencement speaker…what advice might have added to what I’d learned in school, what perspective might have helped prepare me for the world of work.

So in the next few minutes, I’m going to try to do three things. First, I’ll talk about the world you are inheriting and the challenges and opportunities that are ahead of you as professionals. Second, I’ll give you my advice on the “talents”—in the Biblical sense-- you’ll need to meet those challenges.

Finally, I’ll talk briefly about the work of the National Archives. Full disclosure – my hidden agenda is to pique your interest so some of you may think about coming to work for us one of these days.

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First, what lies ahead.   I have to start by saying that while I’ve loved my many years in the business, I am really envious of you.  You are riding a wave of technological change and user engagement that has no parallel in history.

When I graduated in 1974, the tools we had available in libraries and archives weren’t that much different than the ones people had a century before.

Computers? I graduated just before Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded Microsoft and Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded Apple. The internet? Still a Defense Department science experiment. Fax machines were around, but they were huge expensive things, and it took six minutes to transmit a single page.  I still remember when the very first fax machine arrived in the telecommunications office at MIT.  When the fax was received it was immediately put into campus mail for delivery!

You started your studies here having grown up with advanced networking and information technology tools. SIRLS has helped you use, exploit, challenge, and demand better of those tools  to manage information, create the libraries and archives of tomorrow.

Networking and information are fantastically powerful. But as you move from graduate study into the profession, you’ll find they also pose some interesting challenges to librarians and archivists. Let me mention three of them—what I call The Three Paradoxes.

The first is the “more but less” paradox: As technology makes it possible to gather greater and greater amounts of information, it has become dramatically more difficult to manage that information. The clay tablets from ancient Sumeria can still be seen today, medieval manuscripts on animal parchment are perfectly readable, and paper correspondence from the Renaissance is still in good condition.

Books printed on acidic paper are turning to dust on our shelves, videotapes deteriorate much more quickly than does traditional movie film, compact discs have a shelf-life of five to fifteen years.
The floppies of our recent past are all but useless. What was the shelf-life of an 8-track tape? Can anybody here remember WordPerfect? FoxPro? Netscape Navigator? Where have you gone, MS-DOS?

At the National Archives we’re trying to deal with this problem in two ways. We have a kind of Museum of Obsolete Technology at one of our facilities, where we transfer information from thin steel wire, read optical disks and 8-inch floppies.

We’ve also launched one of the most challenging projects in our history:  the creation of the Electronic Records Archives—or ERA. We’re developing ways preserve and provide access to any type of electronic record created by a federal agency no matter what changes in hardware or software may occur.

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The second paradox is the “openness vs. privacy” paradox. As you and every other information professional knows so well, new networking and information technologies have made it possible for more people in more places to have access to more information than ever before.

At the same time, this new availability of information makes it more important and more difficult to keep certain kinds of vital information private. Here’s how the President’s Council of Advisors in Science and Technology put it in a recent report, Designing a Digital Future: “Privacy is a critical issue in all societal applications of networking and information technology… we need a practical science of privacy protection… to provide us with the tools we can use to reconcile privacy with progress.” 

In almost any job you do when you leave here, you’ll have to weigh evidence and make judgments as you try to walk the access/privacy line. We certainly do at the Archives. We believe that citizens have the right to see, examine, and learn from the records that document their rights and entitlements, the actions of their government officials and the history of their nation. And we are also committed to ensuring that personal information remains private.

The third paradox you’ll have to deal with is the “new technologies vs. old regulations” one. We all know how quickly technology can change. I’m going to talk about social media in a moment. It’s critically important today, but it developed so quickly that I wouldn’t have mentioned it in a graduation speech even five years ago.

Laws change much more slowly…take it from someone who now lives and works in the nation’s capital. The result is that I can guarantee that you will be frustrated and maybe even angered by some of the outmoded rules you’ll have to work under, even if you get the library job you’ve always dreamed of.

But my advice is to hang in there. I’ve worked for organizations that have been in existence for a long time – research libraries, the New York Public Libraries, and now the National Archives – and I’ve found that even the most traditional places do change, if you work to make change happen.

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No discussion of the challenges and opportunities that are ahead of you would be complete with mentioning the rise of Web 2.0. As much fun as we can have with Facebook, blogs, tweets, wiki’s, etc – they pose real challenges for information professionals. In fact, all of The Three Paradoxes come into play.

How do information professionals capture and preserve the huge volume of information being generated everyday—including those tweets you are creating as I speak.

How do you preserve Web 2.0 interactions while safeguarding privacy? Embarrassing Facebook photos are just the tip of the iceberg.

And what laws and regulations apply to preserving social media data?
And, most interesting of all, what comes after Web 2.0?

A commencement speech is supposed to deliver some sage advice.  So, pay attention.  We are at that section where I tell you the secrets of success—the talents I hope you will strive to develop to thrive in your chosen profession.

First, Be Bold.  Our world needs Big Hairy Audacious Goals, and I’m counting on you to deliver.

Next,  Maintain Your Sense of Curiosity.  Albert Einstein said “The important thing is not to stop questioning.  Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”  You are on a journey of discovery—make the most of it.

Engage Your Clientele in Your Work.  We don’t have all the answers and your users have a lot to teach us.  “What are you working on?”  The five most important words in our line of work.

Develop a Tolerance For Ambiguity.  Neils Bohr said “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.”  There is no blueprint—learn to thrive on the chaos.

Make Work/Life Balance a Priority.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy—and that goes for Jill also.  Work hard and play hard, but don’t make work your life.

And finally, Love Your Work.   If you don’t love your work get out of it.  Life is too short to spend it doing work you hate.  Be fair to yourself.  More importantly, be fair to those around you.

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Let me end with a few words about the work of the National Archives. Thomas Jefferson said, “Information is the currency of democracy.”

The National Archives and Records Administration is the keeper of one of the most important parts of that currency. We preserve the 2 percent to 3 percent of all records created by the United States  government—those that are important for legal or historical reasons.
 
That may not sound like very much but we now hold 4 million cubic feet of textual and audio-visual (approximately 10 billion pages), more than 122 terabytes of electronic records, miles of film and video, and 40 million photographs.

And that collection is growing, especially the electronic records. To give a sense of the scale: we house 20 million e-mails from the Clinton Administration. And 240 million from the George W. Bush administration.

In our collection you’ll find the most important documents in our history – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, , the Bill of Rights. And you’ll also find tweets.

Yes, the Archives is very involved in social media. When I’m asked why, I like to paraphrase the bank robber Willie Sutton. When he was asked why he robbed so many banks, Sutton replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” The Archives is involved in social media because that’s where the information is.

The Presidential Libraries, several regional archives, the Federal Register, and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission all have their own Facebook pages.  We are up on Flickr—with some 360,000 visitors, and we are on YouTube. In the next couple of weeks we will welcome our first Wikipedian in Residence.  And speaking of Wikipedia we hosted one of the 10th Birthday Celebrations at the National Archives.  My favorite post celebration post:  “If it’s good enough for the Archivist of the United States…”

Whether it’s the papers of the Founding Fathers or the White House Facebook page, our goal is to make it easy for everyone – from information professionals like you, to individual citizens like your friends and parents – to make use of the billions of items in our collection today and tomorrow and forever.

I want to close by quoting a great American who knew nothing about digital information, but who understood very well why the profession you are about to enter is so special. President Franklin Roosevelt, in dedicating the FDR Library in Hyde Park, said:

To bring together the records of the past and to house them in buildings where they will be preserved for the use of men and women in the future, a Nation must believe in three things. It must believe in the past. It must believe in the future. It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its own people so to learn from the past that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future.

As you begin your work as information management and library professionals, embrace the challenges of the field, revel in the historic opportunities presented by new technologies, and remember that you are helping America create its own future.

I am proud to call you my colleagues in what I call God’s work.  Go forth and be productive—because I’ll be keeping an eye on you.

Congratulations to the Class of 2011.

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