About the National Archives

Who is the Archivist?

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

The AOTUS Blog


State of the Archives
December 3, 2009

David S. Ferriero
Archivist of the United States

Good afternoon! It is a pleasure to be here today for this celebration of the outstanding work done by NARA staff throughout this agency. To those of you not in the room—those watching from elsewhere in the building or in the regional facilities or Presidential Libraries—thank you for joining us virtually. I’m excited to be able to talk to all of you at the same time, regardless of where you are.

I want to start by acknowledging Adrienne Thomas and her work over the past year as the Acting Archivist. She is a hard act to follow and her experience and knowledge has already been invaluable to me as I begin my steep learning curve about who we are and how we got to this point in our history. Please join me in thanking her for her contributions to NARA, especially over the past year.

My intent is to share with you a little about myself and then what I see as our priorities as an agency in the coming months.

I am the grandson of Italian immigrants and great-grandson of Irish immigrants. In fact, I recently used NARA’s passenger lists to discover that my grandfather, at the age of 15, arrived in Boston from Naples aboard the ship Commonwealth on the 22nd of March 1903. My grandmother, Antonia Giorgio, also traveling from Naples, arrived on the 8th of March in 1909 aboard the Romantic.

I grew up in Beverly Massachusetts. For those of you interested in birth order research, I’m a typical middle child, as middle children are often referred to as “bridgers” and are always trying to find consensus and bring people together. My father worked at least two jobs, sometimes three, throughout my childhood, and my mother took a job cleaning floors at Beverly Hospital to ensure that I could go to college.

I earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in English literature from Northeastern University in Boston. Northeastern is the nation’s leading cooperative education program where I had my first experience with research libraries, which set the stage for a career spanning more than 40 years. I also have a master’s degree from the Simmons College of Library and Information Science.

A four-year enlistment in the United States Navy, including a year in Viet Nam, gave me training and experience as a hospital corpsman with a specialty in neuro-psychiatry. I spent time working with people with psychological issues. I loved the work, and it gave me a set of people skills that I use every day of my life. I also learned how to start IV drips, stitch up wounds, and to resuscitate. So, I’m handy to have around!

My work experience in three of the Nation’s leading institutions has provided me with a set of professional credentials that I believe to be of particular value to NARA. At MIT, I started shelving books in 1965 and left having served as Acting Co-Director of Libraries 31 years later. I was the University Librarian at Duke University, where I created the first Records Management Program there, and learned the ins and outs of fundraising. And most recently, I served as the Andrew W. Mellon Director of Libraries at the New York Public Library, where I was responsible for collection strategy; conservation; digital experience; reference and research services; and education, programming, and exhibitions. I believe that one of my greatest contributions there was that I was able to bring together a diverse collection of individual units into one library experience.

In all these settings, I have had preservation and conservation experience, including creating the preservation program at Duke. Most importantly I have experienced and managed aspects of technological transformation in all three institutions, as libraries and archives have, for decades, been leaders in the application of technologies to their work.

I am excited about the work all of you do, and eager to learn firsthand what you need to get that work done. I know the challenges facing NARA are daunting, but I am convinced that your talents and skills are up to the tasks ahead. I am absolutely committed to carrying out my responsibilities in a professional, non-partisan, and collegial manner. I will also share with you that I’ve completed the Boston Marathon seven times, and learned a few things about perseverance. When I look at the complex and diverse issues we are facing as an agency, I believe we will all need a lot of perseverance for the long run. And, while I left the lions on Fifth Avenue behind, Patience and Fortitude are very much my watchwords!

I know that many of you watched my Confirmation Hearing testimony where I identified a set of challenges facing the Archives. That list was the result of my work with senior NARA staff on a set of more than 70 questions posed by the staff of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs; my individual meetings with members of that Committee before the hearing; my briefings by The White House Confirmations Office, Transition Team, and Appointments Office; briefings by the Association of Research Libraries, and my reading of the reports of NARA’s Inspector General.

First on the list is the Electronic Records Archives. In preparation for my hearing, I read just about everything Robert Digges Wimberly Connor, the nation’s first Archivist wrote about the state of the official records of the country. The Connor quote I used is too good not to repeat:

…45.0 per cent of the total are infested with silverfish, cockroaches, and other insects, rats, mice, and other vermin, and exposed to such hazards as dirt, rain, sunlight, theft, and fire. More than…46.0 per cent of the total were in depositories that were dark, dirty, badly ventilated, crowded, and without facilities for work. Typical was the case of valuable records relating to Indian affairs which were found on dust-covered shelves mingled higgledy-piggledy with empty whiskey bottles, pieces of soap, rags, and other trash. In another depository crowded with the archives of the Government the most prominent object to one entering the room was the skull of a dead cat protruding from under a pile of valuable records. If a cat with nine lives to risk in the cause of history could not survive the conditions of research in the depositories of our national archives, surely the poor historian with only one life to give his country may be excused if he declines to take the risk.

As I said in my testimony, it seems to me that we are at a similar crossroads in the history of the Archives in the challenges we face with the electronic records of the agencies we serve. Varieties of technology, platforms, software, practice, and lack of standards complicate the work of ingesting, preserving, and making available the records of the government. The work we have undertaken with Lockheed Martin is, of course, being watched closely by our funders, our stakeholders, and the rest of the archival community who is grappling with similar issues of born digital records. We have to get this right.

I also see the Electronic Records Archives initiative as a vehicle for reestablishing our oversight of the records management programs of each agency—working with agencies to establish protocols, practices, and annual audits.

Security of collections—both physical and virtual—is also on my list. This is an issue that every research library or archive deals with on a daily basis—the tension between protecting and providing access to primary materials. NARA has had enough bad press about recent incidents and I am committed to supporting the work of the recently established Holdings Protection Program and Team and intend to create a sense of urgency around this issue.

The Obama administration is committed to increased openness and transparency in Government. The changes we make to meet this challenge with respect to records management affect not only our own work, but the work of all Federal agencies. Along these lines, we must continue our efforts to process and declassify records in a timely manner to get them into the hands of the American public more quickly and efficiently. The new National Declassification Center, located in NARA, will play a big part in our efforts to help build a more open Government.

The future of the Presidential Library System was certainly an area of discussion during all of my pre-hearing conversations. The recently submitted report by NARA Staff which outlines a variety of scenarios will most likely be the focus of a hearing in the coming year.

The Internet has introduced countless researchers to the holdings of the National Archives. While it is thrilling that the desire for online information brings more and more people to our virtual doors, I know that the task of building an “archives without walls,” so to speak, is a demanding one. An important part of our effort must be developing the means for archivists to interact with our virtual visitors, and figuring out how archivists work in a virtual archives – what skills are needed, and how work processes will change. I applaud the work you have done to establish NARA’s presence on the world-wide web, and your successful launches of social media and networking tools such as You Tube, Flickr, Twitter, and Facebook to reach new audiences, capture useful information, and receive timely feedback on programs and holdings. Web 2.0 technologies are powerful communication tools, and I know that our recent initiatives are just the tip of the iceberg of what is yet to come in this area.

I also recommit our energies to engaging our stakeholders in meaningful ways as we address the issues I have outlined. I look forward to working with John Hamilton and David McMillen in establishing effective lines of communication with our friends on the Hill and the communities we serve.

Finally, and for me, most importantly, I am fully committed to investing in NARA’s most valuable resource–you, our staff. We cannot be successful in accomplishing any of this agenda without a strong and valued staff. Through our Strategic Human Capital Plan, we are looking at new strategies to recruit, develop and strengthen, and retain the diverse and highly skilled workforce we need to execute the mission that is vital to our Government. As someone who started his career as a shelver, I am committed to creating opportunities for people to find career choices at NARA. I take job satisfaction and staff morale surveys very seriously. I want NARA to be among the top agencies in which to work.

I have not mentioned space, preservation needs, technology infrastructure, and a longer list of things which are on my radar screen. We’ll save those for another time.

In conclusion, as I stand before you now as the tenth Archivist of the United States, I am keenly aware of the skill, talent, and spirit that has shaped this unique organization for its first 75 years. We are all stewards of the work begun by Robert Connor.

Carved into the north façade of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC is a statement that I think perfectly sums up what we must continually strive to embody. It says “This building holds in trust the records of our national life and symbolizes our faith in the permanency of our national institutions.”

The work that we are entrusted to do reflects the faith of our fellow citizens that the records of our government shall continue to tell the stories of the people and events that shape our nation… and that anyone who wishes should have access to these records.

I am honored to have been called to lead this fine agency, and I ask for your support as we steer NARA into the future.

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