Archives director wants you to have access

Archives director wants you to have access

Washington CorrespondentJanuary 15, 2010 

  • The National Archives contains 10 billion documents and items that form the raw history of our nation's government. Tap into the archives online at www.archives.gov.

    Among those who use the archives:

    Genealogists: to find family history in land records, immigration rolls, naturalization records and Census records through 1930.

    Veterans: to get their military records and personnel files.

    Students: to read original documents from the Founding Fathers and explore the Digital Vaults in the online National Archives Experience, www.archives.gov/nae.

    Conspiracy buffs: to read declassified documents on the JFK assassination, on UFOs and on Watergate.

  • Robert Digges Wimberly Connor of Wilson, N.C., was the first archivist of the United States and served from 1934 to 1941. He was a graduate of and history faculty member at UNC-Chapel Hill.

    New archivist David Ferriero has often quoted Connor in his speeches, especially one early study of the Archives' poor condition.

    In it, Connor wrote:

    "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 ranges 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."

— Until recently, David Ferriero's favorite artifact at the National Archives in Washington was the canceled $7.2 million check - "An actual check!" - used to purchase the territory of Alaska in 1868.

But then last week, Ferriero (FARE-ee-oh), the Archives' new director, saw an old American Indian treaty buried in a secret vault. It was etched on parchment and festooned with ribbons and, he recalled, "a string of the most beautiful cobalt blue and white beads."

"Wampum!" he exclaimed in a recent interview. "Have you ever seen wampum?"

By now, Ferriero probably has a new favorite item. For the new nation's 10th archivist, the former director of Duke University's library system, the discoveries come daily.

Ferriero, 64, began work in November and had his ceremonial swearing-in Wednesday as director of the National Archives and Records Administration. His is a little-known job that puts him not only at the helm of the United States' 10 billion-item trove of documents, but also at the forefront of efforts to make the U.S. government as transparent as possible to its citizens.

"One of our missions is to ensure people of the United States have access to the records," said Ferriero, who is the first librarian to lead the Archives.

Beyond the so-called Charters of Freedom written by our Founding Fathers, the Archives holds old legislative bills, early sketches of the Apollo moon lander, formerly classified details on the attempted U.S. cover-up of the downed U-2 spy plane in the Soviet Union. There are decades of slave ship manifests, military records and immigration logs treasured by genealogists.

Ferriero worked his way up from shelving books to associate director of libraries at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was Duke University's vice provost for libraries from 1996 until 2004, before taking over the public libraries for New York City.

'People support him'

"He's very smart, but he lacks pretense or arrogance," said Susan Nutter, who worked with Ferriero at MIT and now is vice provost for libraries at N.C. State University. "People support him, and they follow him. He is a true leader."

Ferriero also is the consummate librarian, delighting in history while promoting openness in government. He tries to wander every day through the National Archives' Rotunda, home to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, to marvel alongside the tourists.

Yet Ferriero's tenure follows a difficult time for the National Archives. The agency fought the Bush administration over access to records following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and was accused by The New York Times of needing "spine-stiffening" in its dealings with the White House.

In 2003, Sandy Berger, former national security adviser to President Bill Clinton, took classified memos on terrorist plots from the National Archives and destroyed them. Berger later pleaded guilty to unauthorized removal of classified documents.

"It gets very, very political," said Deborah Jakubs, who succeeded Ferriero as university librarian and vice provost for library affairs at Duke. "What should be classified? When should it be unclassified?"

Asked whether he has the backbone to take on the White House over public records, Ferriero nodded.

"Oh sure," he said. "And it's not just the White House. It's the government in general. I need to make sure that each agency is doing what they're supposed to be doing in the area of records. It's an oversight role."

One way to classify

There now are 2,000 systems in government for classifying documents, Ferriero said. He has been asked to help streamline those into one system.

President Barack Obama last month also announced the establishment of the National Declassification Center and put Ferriero in charge of it. Ferriero, working with agencies such as the armed forces and the Central Intelligence Agency, has been given four years to go through 400 million pages of federal documents that remain top secret. They date to World War I.

The exercise is beyond academic, said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.

Documents relating to, say, U.S. efforts to frustrate the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, or the Reagan administration's support of Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war, could prove instructive to the nation today.

"Almost any event that one reads about in the news today has precursors in our recent past," Aftergood said.

As more records are produced electronically, the Archives must find a way to preserve them even as technology evolves. Ferriero said this might be his greatest challenge.

Personal discovery

For now, though, he remains awed by the near-daily encounters with history.

Just this week, he visited the military records archives in St. Louis, Mo. There, he saw the vault containing the records of George Patton, Jackie Robinson and Elvis Presley. And in the same vault, he found his own personnel records from his service in the Navy.

So that, perhaps, is the national archivist's new favorite document.

bbarrett@mcclatchydc.com or 202-383-0012

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