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The National Archives and Records Administration serves as the leading agency in preserving our nation’s most important historical documents. From the Declaration of Independence to President Trump’s latest tweet, the agency safeguards the rich history of the United States and makes records readily available for the federal government and the public.
David S. Ferriero, the 10th archivist of the United States, oversees the operations of the Archives. President Obama appointed Ferriero in 2009 after his long career as a librarian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Duke University, and most recently the director of the New York Public Library.
Though a strict set of laws and schedules guides Ferriero’s work with the Archives, his ongoing responsibility is to make the information accessible to all. Through its National Archives Museum, some of the institution’s greatest keepings are on public display. Founding documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are the main attractions, complemented by timely exhibitions featuring a wide variety of important historical records.
In honor of the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote, the Archives now showcases Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote, an exhibition which includes the 19th Amendment, state ratifications of the amendment, protest photographs, petitions to vote, and political pamphlets from the time. Another new display, which runs to Oct. 9, honors the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Woodstock Music & Art Fair. It features artifacts like the cover of LIFE Magazine’s special Woodstock edition and images of the crowds from the magazine.
These exhibitions give visitors a small taste of the vast history preserved within the Archives, which strives to expand its reach by adopting a digital mindset to become more accessible for the future. It’s always been about the future: By taking a more digital approach, the seemingly distant, decades-old institution aims to cater to the coming generations, so the past is not an enigma, but rather a resource to aid the future. After nearly 10 years of his term, Ferriero spoke with City Paper about bringing the National Archives into that future.
WCP: How has developing technology impacted the Archives during your term?
Ferriero: I would say that the real revolution has taken place during the rise of social media, and it’s had the greatest impact on the way folks—not only in the government but in the country and the world—are communicating and sharing information. I came into my position in November of 2009. I remember I had a Senate confirmation hearing, and I can remember coming to Washington from New York, reading in the New York Times that the White House had [requested] for help in managing their social media, and I was kind of beside myself because here I was being interviewed for archivist of the United States wondering: Why on earth is the White House going outside the government for help with their social media? That was my introduction to how much work we needed to do to get the Archives in the position where we could be fulfilling our mission, which was to provide guidance and rules, especially to the executive branch, about the records implications of their uses of technology. If we weren’t using those technologies ourselves, how on earth would we be able to do that? As I came into the job, the National Archives wasn’t doing anything in social media, so I quickly got the staff apprised of what we should be doing. It’s safe to say we are a leader in the executive branch in our uses of social media. We are now on 16 different platforms.
WCP: What efforts have you made to go digital?
Ferriero: I have been a huge proponent of digitization activities forever, as soon as I realized the potential, so when I came here, I was pleased to learn that the National Archives had formed several commercial partnerships with places like Ancestry.com so that all of the genealogical material that people are using now, much of it comes from the National Archives. Ships’ passenger lists, census records—all of that is material that Ancestry has digitized and made available. I want to digitize everything in our holdings, and that is like 15 billion pieces of paper and parchment, 43 million photographs, and miles and miles of film and video. I will never live to see it, but I’m convinced that it’s important for us to do that. I’ve worked enough with researchers and college students, both graduate students and undergraduates, to know that they have now become addicted to digital content. I can still remember this from my days working directly with students. Students will change their topic if they can’t find the information with a good Google search. Librarians in the early days used to fight that and try and convince students that there’s still a paper world. There is still a paper world, and there will be for some time, but we also need to recognize the fact that students and researchers and the general public have raised expectations because we have delivered so much content already. They’re expecting everything to be online.
WCP: Will the increased capacity of digital space cause the Archives to preserve more information for longer?
Ferriero: I think it’ll be the same. There are many kinds of day-to-day business records that have a life expectancy that need to be available for 25 years, but after that there’s no need to keep payroll records forever, for instance. People think because technology storage costs keep coming down, it removes the need for that kind of decision making, but the ability to be successful in discovering the good information that you need really is dependent upon careful curating of the content to begin with.
WCP: How has President Trump’s method of communication through Twitter impacted your work?
Ferriero: Actually, it’s an interesting data point. About 90 to 95 percent of the Obama records were born digital—no paper equivalent. Obama was the first president to tweet, so we have all of the Obama tweets, so the fact that this president is tweeting is not anything new for us.
WCP: How does the Citizen Archivist program impact the work of the Archives?
Ferriero: When President Obama came into office on his first day, he met with his senior staff and made a point with them that the government doesn’t have all the answers and that we need to be tapping the expertise of the American public to help us do our work to solve our problems. I took that to heart when I got here and started thinking about how we can engage the American public in the work of the National Archives and worked with my staff to create the Citizen Archivist program. We have an interesting dilemma here. Of the 15 billion pieces of paper we have, I would say that more than half, probably 60 or 70 percent of those records, are in cursive. Cursive isn’t being taught in schools anymore, so we have a generation of students who can’t read our records. One of the early wins in the Citizen Archivist program was to mount thousands of records in cursive and ask for volunteers to transcribe them, so there are good people all over the country who are helping us in transcribing cursive to print so that students will be able to use our records, so there’s one example of engaging the American public in helping us do our work. Millions of photographs, not all of them are carefully catalogued as we would like, so being able to identify people that are in the photographs, where the photographs were taken, that kind of information is another opportunity that Citizen Archivists have. I’m really interested in people providing additional information that they might have about the records that we have in our custody.
WCP: How does the Archives compare to other institutions?
Ferriero: One of the great values of having a nonpartisan, independent agency responsible for the records is we’re preserving the good stuff and the bad stuff. Unlike some other countries where there’s less focus on ensuring that there is a nonpartisan approach, we’re pretty particular about that.
WCP: What goals do you have for the future?
Ferriero: We’re in the process of shifting the entire government off of paper and to all electronic record-keeping. We are playing a major role in helping the agencies get to that point.
WCP: What is one thing in the Archives that not many people know about but should?
Ferriero: Four of my favorite things—I have copies hanging outside my office—they are letters to the president. Part of the records under the Presidential Records Act, correspondence with the president becomes permanent record, and those four letters that are hanging outside my office are letters that I wrote as a kid to President Eisenhower, President Kennedy, and President Johnson. Two letters to President Eisenhower, one to President Kennedy, and one to LBJ, congratulating him for signing the Civil Rights Act.