Prologue Magazine

An Ambitious Agenda at the National Archives

Winter 2009, Vol. 41, No. 4

By David S. Ferriero

Archivist of the United States


As I begin my tenure as the 10th Archivist of the United States, I want to introduce myself to the readers of Prologue and to share some of my thinking about the challenges the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is facing and how we should meet them.

Like many of the staff at the National Archives, I started in the stacks—shelving books in the library at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while attending Northeastern University, the nation's leading cooperative education program, in Boston.

With time out for a four-year enlistment in the Navy, I received my bachelor's and master's degrees in English literature from Northeastern and a master’s degree from the nearby Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science.

Then it was back to MIT, where I worked in the libraries and rose to associate director for public services and acting co-director of MIT libraries. In 1996, I left for Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, where I was vice provost for library affairs and university librarian before moving on in 2004 to the New York Public Libraries, first as director of the research libraries, then as director of all the libraries.

Since those early days at MIT, I have spent more than 40 years in archives and records administration in three large, complex information organizations, managing and applying new technologies, overseeing disparate elements of the same organization, and working to sustain institutional support. Now, I'm facing similar challenges—but on an even larger scale.

Today at the National Archives, we are at a moment as significant as the agency's first few years of existence 75 years ago. Then, the issues were the terrible conditions records were in when they arrived at the Archives; today, we must grapple with the myriad of electronic records, the complexities of social media, and ever-emerging technologies.

As I stated during my Senate confirmation hearings, my top priorities at the Archives will be to:

  • Ensure that the Electronic Records Archives meets its deadlines, uses resources efficiently, and delivers the desired product.
  • Develop a sense of urgency about the security of our collection—how materials are handled by staff and users and how those materials are protected from theft and other harm.
  • Explore alternative ways to expedite the elimination of the backlog of unprocessed records to improve access to them.
  • Meet the enormous and evolving preservation and conservation challenges that face our vast collections of records.
  • Plan for, acquire, and prepare appropriate and adequate space for the large amounts of new material coming to us in the future.
  • Consider alternatives to how presidential libraries now exist within NARA by analyzing the options of physically separate or more consolidated facilities in the future as well as the costs, risks, and rewards of different systems.
  • Ensure that NARA appropriately balances the public's right to open access to records with the responsibility to protect security and privacy information.
  • Work with other agencies to see that records management protocols are being followed, that agency staffs are well trained and supported, and that they get feedback from NARA on how they are doing.
  • Take seriously the results of recent job satisfaction surveys and determine how management can make a positive difference in NARA staff's work experience.
  • Ensure that there is an ongoing dialogue with our many stakeholders, that feedback is welcomed and solicited, and that a collegial relationship is fostered.

I learn by observing and talking. So in working on these priority areas, I'll be visiting as many of our staff as time permits to see firsthand the important work they do each day at our 44 locations nationwide and to draw on their ideas, abilities, and insights. Maybe somewhere in the stacks is a future Archivist of the United States!

In addition, we want our customers and stakeholders to let us know how we can improve our services to them while safeguarding and preserving the records of our government so that people can discover, use, and learn from this documentary heritage.

It is a humbling experience as well as an honor to be asked by the President to serve as Archivist of the United States, and I pledge to carry out my responsibilities in a professional, nonpartisan, and collegial manner as we tackle the Archives' ambitious agenda.


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.