About the National Archives

Remarks of David S. Ferriero upon his Swearing In as Tenth Archivist of the United States

The Archivist was sworn in by Associate Justice Stephen Breyer of the U.S. Supreme Court.

January 13, 2010

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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Special thanks to you, Justice Breyer, for presiding at today’s ceremony. We are all honored by your presence here today.

A word on the Bible that we just used. That is the Toomey family Bible presented to me by my grandmother, Marie Elizabeth Buckley Toomey, many, many years ago. . . . I have been supplementing it with Ferriero data — a deed which I will probably pay for in another life.

I'm going to follow FDR's advice. I'm going to be brief, be sincere, and I'm going to be seated.

There are a lot of special places in Washington but the National Archives is the most special because of the founding Charters in the cases here. But in the spirit of full disclosure and transparency and open government, I have to tell you that these are fakes! They are high quality fakes, but they are fakes.

Because today’s ceremony is being webcast, the lighting level had to be adjusted beyond that is allowable for viewing of the originals. And one of my jobs is to make sure that these documents last in perpetuity.... I do promise, however, that at the end of the ceremony, you will get a chance to see the originals.

The National Archives is an even more special place this afternoon because of your presence. My wife and members of our families are joined by old friends and new friends as well as staff from the National Archives and Records Administration.

And I’d like the members of the staff who are here to please stand, And I'd like to publicly thank you for making me welcome here, for your patience and good humor in your endless briefings on what we do and why, and the passion you bring to your jobs each day. I am proud to be with you.

Old friends and colleagues represent all three of my lives—MIT, Duke, and the New York Public Libraries.

And new friends include members of the White House and Capitol Hill staffs, the Clerk of the House, the Director of the Institute of Museum Library Services, the Librarian of Congress and some of his staff, the Public Printer of the United States, and stakeholders from the Archives' open government, history, library and genealogy communities. And a special welcome to a member of the White House Transition Team on Archives, Bruce McConnell. Thanks for joining us.

I want to especially recognize two men: Tom Wheeler, the immediate past president of the Foundation for the National Archives. Tom is the man who convinced me I was the right person for this job. Thank you, Tom. And Ken Lore, who has enthusiastically taken on the presidency of the Foundation. The Foundation is critical to our ability to carry out our mission. The generosity of Board members and those who support the Foundation — and many of you are in the room today — has made it possible for us to create the National Archives Experience, the online Digital Vaults, the Boeing Learning Center, the McGowan Theater, the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery, and to support many of the services that we provide to our users.

We are also joined by technology to the 3,000 employees of the Archives around the country.

Greetings to all of you in:

  • Anchorage, Alaska
  • Little Rock, Arkansas
  • Laguna Niguel, Riverside, San Francisco, Simi Valley, and Yorba Linda, California
  • Denver, Colorado
  • Archives I here in this building and at the Office of the Federal Register in the District
  • Atlanta, Morrow, and Ellenwood, Georgia
  • Chicago and Valmeyer, Illinois
  • West Branch, Iowa
  • Abilene and Lenexa, Kansas
  • College Park and Suitland, Maryland
  • Boston, Pittsfield, and Waltham, Massachusetts
  • Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids, Michigan
  • Independence, Kansas City, Lee’s Summit, and St. Louis, Missouri
  • Hyde Park and New York City, NY
  • Dayton, Ohio
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Austin, College Station, Lewisville, and Fort Worth, Texas
  • Seattle, Washington
  • and Rocket Center, West Virginia

So, what have I learned in my first 60 days?

(1) A lot of history!

Although the National Archives is only 75 years old, the recognition of the importance of the country’s records can be traced back to the very beginning of the democracy.

When the Constitutional Congress of 1787 had completed its work, delegate Rufus King of Massachusetts suggested that the Journals of the Convention be either destroyed or deposited in the custody of the President. He thought "if suffered to be made public, a bad use would be made of them by those who wish to prevent the adoption of the Constitution." The Convention voted to entrust the records to George Washington with instructions that he retain them "subject to the order of Congress, if that body was ever formed."

In 1796, Washington turned them over to the new Department of State. The exceptions, of course, were the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, which were sent to the Continental Congress in session in New York. It was not until 1800, when the seat of government moved from there to here, that those charters joined the other records at the Department of State.

In 1810, Josiah Quincy of Massachusetts, recognizing the risk associated with the growing volume of documents of the government scattered around the city, told the House of Representatives that "the public records of the country were in such a situation as was disgraceful to the House and to the Nation.

Not only were they in disorder, and in a state of decay, but all the records of the Revolutionary War lay under the eave of the building in a condition extremely unsafe, and daily exposed to destruction by fire." In fact during the fire of 1801, files of the War and Treasury Departments were destroyed and President John Adams himself joined the bucket brigade to quench the flames.

In true government tradition, a committee was formed and a study conducted and a bill with a $20,000 appropriation was signed by President [James] Madison to construct "as many fireproof rooms" as were necessary to house the archives of the Government. Before the law could be enacted, the British army invaded with instructions to burn the city. Clerks in the State Department working through the night packed the records of the government into linen sacks, loaded onto creaking carts into the hills of Virginia. The next morning, August 25, 1814, the Capital and other public buildings were in ashes. When British left Washington, the records were returned to their former home and languished for another century.

Congress finally acted in 1926 and authorized the construction of this building which began in September of 1931. President Herbert Hoover laid the cornerstone in February of 1933, and it was President Franklin Roosevelt who signed the 73rd Congress’ "Act to Establish a National Archives of the United States Government" in June of 1934—the act which created the position of Archivist of the United States.

In laying the cornerstone, President Hoover said:

The building which is rising here will house the name and records of every patriot who bore arms for our country in the Revolutionary War, as well as those of all later wars. Further, there will be aggregated here the most sacred documents of our history—the originals of the Declaration of Independence and of the Constitution of the United States.

Here will be preserved all the other records that bind state to state and the hearts of all our people in an indissoluble union. The romance of our history will have living habitation here in the writings of statesmen, soldiers, and others, both men and women, who have built the great structure of our national life.

This temple of our history will appropriately be one of the most beautiful buildings in America, an expression of the American soul. It will be one of the most durable, an expression of American character.

Devoutly the nation will pray that it may endure forever, the repository of records of yet more glorious progress in the life of our beloved country.

As many of you know, I have been reading just about everything I can find written by Robert Digges Wimberly Connor, the first Archivist of the United States. Dr. Connor was a native of Wilson, North Carolina, a graduate of and history faculty member at the University of North Carolina. nd I'd like to think that if Duke had been founded when Mr. Connor was going to school, he would have opted for Duke. We have a lot of Carolina people here in the audience.

Connor had commissioned a study of the state of the government’s records during the two years before construction was complete. Describing the situation from the perspective of the researcher he writes:

...conditions make it impossible for officials to find adequate room for both their files and their staffs. Few facilities can be furnished the student and his presence is tolerated rather than encouraged by staffs already sufficiently burdened with the routine duties of the day. He finds the records he desires to use scattered throughout the country, stored wherever space can be found for them, in cellars and sub-cellars, under terraces and over boiler-rooms, in attics and corridors, piled in dumps on floors and packed into alcoves, abandoned carbarns, storage warehouses, deserted theaters, or ancient but more humble edifices that should long ago have served their last useful purpose. Typical is the case of valuable records relating to Indian Affairs which were found in a depository in Washington piled on dust-covered shelves mingled higgledy-piggledy with empty whisky bottles and with rags and other highly inflammable trash. In another Washington depository packed with documents the most prominent object which meets the eye as one enters the room is the skull of a cat protruding from under a pile of valuable records. I think it is a fair question that if a cat with nine lives to risk in the cause of history could not survive the conditions of research in the depositories of government records, can we justly blame the poor scholar who has only one life to give for his country if he refuses to take the risk?

All of us who have followed in Robert Connor’s footsteps owe him a great debt of gratitude for paving the way. Each of my predecessors has built on the work that he started.

(2) I have embraced the mission of the Archives.

Reduced to its most basic terms our work is to collect, protect, and encourage the use of the records of government.

We work with each agency to create a records schedule which spells out the timetable for retention of records, transfer to the Archives, access stipulations, etc. Archives staff trains agency staff and monitors compliance with records management policies and procedures.

As you might expect, this function has gotten very interesting in the last several years as we grapple with the transition to electronic records—no paper equivalent. And we have a very large and very important initiative underway to be able to fulfill our mission in the electronic environment.

We have a responsibility to ensure that the 2 to 3 percent of all the government’s records which eventually become permanent and reside here are going to be available in perpetuity. That means ensuring that the proper security—both physical and virtual—is in place which guarantees that documents don’t leave our control and are not altered in their use.

In addition, protection means preservation and conservation routines which care for the physical object to extend its life, usually through providing an appropriate storage environment. Another area where long-term preservation of electronic records is on our agenda.

Making it easy for researchers, students, and the general public to learn about and make use of the billions of items in our collection is clearly a challenge. Free and open access to the records of government will always be the work of this agency. Exhibits, classes, lectures, and digitization activities all contribute to our mission of encouraging the use of the records of government and exciting the next generation of historians to become a Michael Beschloss, or an Anne Firor Scott, or a T.J. Stiles or a Drew Faust, to choose a life of scholarship.

President Franklin Roosevelt, in dedicating the FDR Library in Hyde Park, said it best:

"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...Among democracies, I think through all of the recorded history of the world, the building of permanent institutions like libraries and museums for the use of the people flourishes. And that is especially true in our own land, because we believe that people ought to work out for themselves, and through their own study, the determination of their best interest rather than accept such so-called information as may be handed out to them by certain types of self-constituted leaders who decide what is best for them."

(3) I have learned that the Agency is well-respected, held in high regard, and trusted as a non-partisan partner in government. As a result, certain responsibilities have been assigned to the Archives portfolio over time.

The Information Security Oversight Office, established by Executive Order, is responsible to the President for policy oversight of the government-wide security classification system and the National Industrial Security Program.

The Controlled Unclassified Information Office was created within the Archives to address a need to develop policy standards and implementation guidance for sensitive but unclassified information to encourage information-sharing among agencies involved in homeland security activities

The Office of Government Information Services, which opened its doors just before I arrived, was established to act as the government’s Freedom of Information Act ombudsman by reviewing Freedom of Information Act activities government-wide and by helping to resolve disputes between requesters and agencies.

And, most recently, on December 29, President Obama established the National Declassification Center within the Archives. This is an inter-agency effort, led by the Archives, to streamline declassification processes, facilitate quality assurance, and provide training for declassification reviewers.

Ultimately, the Center will usher in a new day in the world of access, allowing us to make more records available for public scrutiny much more quickly. To give you a sense of the task ahead, there are now some 2,000 different security classification guides at work in the government and more than 400 million pages of records awaiting declassification and public access by December 31, 2013.

(4) I have learned about work of our Federal Register staff has been ongoing with our friends in the White House Technology Office to help in the Administration’s Open Government Initiative, and I am excited about opportunities we have to create more government transparency and more participation by the public in government.

(5) On Day One, I chaired my first meeting of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and authorized the awarding of $2.9 million in grants to support the activities of archivists, historians, librarians, educators, documentary editors and records administrators around the country.

(6) On Monday of this week I visited three of our facilities in St. Louis, the largest of our facilities outside of the Washington-Maryland area with some 800 employees. And I was pleased to have as my touring partner Congressman [William Lacy] Clay, who could not be with us today, who has been so helpful in paving the way for the construction of our new facility in St. Louis, and I expect to be sharing a shovel with him in early June as we break ground for the new building.

Among other records, St. Louis houses the military personnel records of the nation’s veterans. In a tour of a secure vault there I held in my hands my own personnel records from my Navy service. I discovered that my records are sharing the vault with such distinguished military figures as George Patton, Colin Powell, and Elvis Presley. I want to thank the folks in St. Louis for making that such a wonderful trip, and look forward to visiting other NARA facilities soon.

(7) I am learning about the great depth and breadth of our holdings firsthand by participating in as many archives vault tours as I possibly can. I have seen the Louisiana Purchase, the endorsed check with which we purchased Alaska, a letter to President McKinley in 1898 from Annie Oakley offering 50 women sharpshooters to fight the Spanish-American War, strings of wampum attached to an Indian treaty, and have had the extraordinary opportunity to spend time up close with the Charters of Freedom. Throughout this phase of my education I have been taught by talented and passionate staff members who care for and service these holdings.

(8) I have testified at my first Oversight Committee hearing along with my colleagues from the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian and a panel of stakeholders. This was an opportunity for me to explain the role that exhibits and educational programs play in fulfilling of the mission of the agency.

(9) I have wandered the halls and met staff, have been briefed by senior staff, and am gaining an appreciation for the talent, creativity, innovative spirit, and excitement about the future which exists across the agency.

(10) I have met with several stakeholder groups, some of whom are with us this afternoon, to better understand their relationships with the Archives and to let them know that I take their advice seriously. We are all working to make this the best Agency in government.

(11) I failed my fingerprinting test.

(12) I have been captured on our security cameras trying to break into the Archives on a Sunday morning.

So, it has been a very productive start up.

The work of the Archives is massive, the challenges are real, and the stakes are high. There is much work ahead.

You have all witnessed the swearing of my oath to "well and faithfully discharge the duties of my office," and I promise each and every one of you that I will do so.

So help me God.