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Q&A: David Ferriero goes from Duke's university librarian to national archivist

Ferriero will deliver the Founders' Day address Friday

<p>David Ferriero, the 10th Archivist of the U.S., became the first librarian selected for the position in 2009 after previously serving as university librarian at Duke.</p>

David Ferriero, the 10th Archivist of the U.S., became the first librarian selected for the position in 2009 after previously serving as university librarian at Duke.

David Ferriero, former head of the University's library system, is the 10th Archivist of the United States and will deliver the Founders' Day address Friday at 5:30 p.m. in Page Auditorium. Ferriero worked in the library system at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for 31 years, then after serving as university librarian at Duke from 1996-2004 became Andrew W. Mellon director of the New York Public Libraries. Now 69, he was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009 as national archivist, becoming the first librarian ever to fill the role. Before Ferriero's return to Durham Friday, The Chronicle’s David Wohlever spoke with him about his role as archivist, the impact of digitalization on record-keeping and his time at Duke.

The Chronicle: How would you describe your role as national archivist?

David Ferriero: We’re responsible for all the records of the country, so we’re the nation’s record keeper. That means we’re responsible for 275 executive branch agencies, advising them, providing guidance to them on the creation of the records, the maintenance of the records and the transfer to us at the appropriate time according to record schedules that are created in conjunction with my staff. So there are records managers in each of the agencies who work with my staff to create the schedules that describe the records and then at the appropriate time, transfer those records to the national archives, where we keep them forever and ever.

TC: How would you say digitalization has changed the nature of record-keeping and keeping track of information?

DF: It’s made it much more complicated. We started collecting electronic mail during the Ronald Reagan administration, so we have some experience between Reagan and [George H.W.] Bush, about 2.5 million email messages, 20 million during the Clinton White House, 210 million during the [George W.] Bush administration, and we’ve already blown by the 1 billion mark for this administration. It’s massive amounts of information. And getting all of the agencies on board in terms of creating and maintaining in a way that messages can be delivered to us at the appropriate time has been the biggest challenge. You’ve seen a lot in the press about the IRS and the EPA and the former Secretary of State’s email to give you some indication of just how complicated this is for the federal government.

TC: Does it become almost impossible for your organization to keep up with all of this information?

DF: I’m confident that we’re on the right track. The technology is developing faster than we can keep up with it, which is actually very good for us because new solutions are emerging everyday. Our goal is to ensure that 100 years from now, people are going to have access to this information the same way they have access to the paper information that we’ve been collecting forever.

TC: During your time as archivist, you've overseen the National Declassification Center, which is reviewing 400 million pages of classified content for release to the public. What are the most interesting documents that you’ve uncovered during this process?

DF: The six oldest documents dating back to World War I, I think, are some of the most interesting. They were classified by the CIA, and they are formulas for secret ink.

TC: How did you react when you found out that you were nominated for archivist?

DF: I thought they had made a mistake. I had a great conversation with the kid who was calling from the White House. He was working on appointments for David Jacobson, who was doing the president’s work on appointments.  I said I was very flattered, but you’re looking at the wrong person. I had two conversations like that with him, and they finally had an adult call me to talk more about the position, and invited me to come to Washington to talk more. They’d never hired a librarian to be the Archivist of the United States. It’s a political appointment. The former governor of Kansas was the archivist. I was suspicious because, why do you want someone who knows the business? It took them awhile to convince me.

TC: While you were with the New York Public Library System, you partnered with Google on digitalization projects. Why do you think that this sort of work is important in today's society?

DF: I’m convinced that if it’s not online, it doesn’t exist, especially in undergraduates’ minds. And we as librarians for many years tried to fight that, and I’m convinced that our goal is to make all of that content available electronically. That’s why I was very excited to work with Google on the Google Book project. We did over a million books from the New York Public Library collection. Working with the original five partners, 15 million books were digitized and are now available in full text. That’s the future, and I’m committed in my current role here to do as much as I can to get all of our content available electronically.

TC: Can you talk a little bit about your experience at Duke—is there anything about it that you miss?

DF: I miss that place all the time. It was a very important eight years for me in terms of learning, growth and opportunities. I was there during Nan Keohane’s administration, and she saw the librarian as an important member of her senior administration, so I got to participate in things like curriculum reform, campus master planning and rethinking academic computing. It was a great learning experience for me.

TC: What was your role in expanding the Duke libraries to what they are today? 

DF: It became clear to me during my interview [for the position at Duke] that the libraries were kind of tired, and not state-of-the-art in terms of physical space. I was very fortunate to have agreement on that from the President, the Provost and [Executive Vice President] Tallman Trask. And we had a massive space problem. There wasn’t enough room in the library to house all the books that we had. In fact, I was encouraging faculty not to return books because we didn’t have any space for them. 

So in 2000, we actually built that off-campus facility, the Library Service Center, which was the very beginning of the Perkins project. And it was also during the campaign for Duke where we were able to raise money to really focus on the needs of the Perkins Library, and it enabled us to create Bostock, Von der Heyden Pavilion, and to renovate everything except Special Collections. And that’s the Rubenstein piece that gets dedicated on Saturday. So there’s a real commitment while I was there, from the administration and from the trustees, to focus on the physical facility of the library, which I’m very proud of.

TC: How do you think your time here impacted the future of your career?

DF: Oh, massive. I always point to Duke as the most important part of my career, because it gave me not only the opportunities that I already described, but I also learned a whole lot about power, negotiation, cooperation and competition. The political aspect of leadership, I learned on the Duke campus. You know, I worked for 31 years in the libraries at MIT, and as wonderful as MIT is, it doesn’t have a great basketball team. 

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