, Gloucester, MA

December 15, 2009

President's archivist has his finger on history

By Cate Lecuyer

BEVERLY — This month, Beverly native David Ferriero took a look at the check the United States wrote in 1867 to purchase Alaska for $7.1 million.


"Because I could," Ferriero said.

After President Obama nominated him over the summer, the Senate last month confirmed Ferriero as the 10th archivist of the United States. The job requires keeping track of all federal means of communication, from the original Declaration of Independence, to millions of photographs, maps, motion pictures and audio recordings, to presidential e-mails and Facebook and Twitter updates.

"We have 10 billion things," he said. And growing. As more and more information goes online, one of the government's top challenges is figuring out the best way to not only convert paper documents into electronic records, but to preserve the constant and evolving stream of digital discourse that occurs in every branch of government.

When it comes to archiving, there's no line between what to keep and what to throw away.

"We come down on the side of archiving everything," Ferriero said. "It's simpler and cheaper to keep everything than having these kinds of arbitrary distinctions." Plus, he said, you never know if it will be valuable in the future.

As a Class of 1963 graduate of Beverly High School, Ferriero grew up in North Beverly and still has family in the area. He said he makes it a point to keep up on news in his hometown.

Last year, as the director of the New York Public Library, he read in The Salem News about a 10-year-old's door-to-door campaign to raise thousands of dollars to save Salem school librarians' jobs. He sent him a personal letter commending his efforts, saying he would roll out the red carpet for him to "visit my library here in New York City."

"Jonathan Marrero," he recalled, without skipping a beat.

Before joining the New York Public Library in 2004, Ferriero served as university librarian and vice provost for library affairs at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

As a graduate of both Northeastern University and Simmons College of Library and Information Science, he got his start shelving books at MIT and left as co-director 31 years later for the job at Duke.

While at New York, he didn't expect to be nominated to the U.S. archivist position.

"Never," he said. "It was a complete surprise when I got the call from the White House in May."

There was a lot of discussion about what the job would involve before he accepted it, he said.

The position has had some contentious moments in the past, particularly in 2006 when a hearing revealed a secret reclassification program that involved removing thousands of historical documents from public access, in the name of national security.

"I think anyone who works in the White House has the potential to work with controversial issues," Ferriero said.

He oversees 3,000 people at the National Archives and Records Administration. Created in 1934, it includes 44 facilities.

After two weeks on the job, a typical day includes meetings, conferences and getting to know D.C., he said. He hasn't met the president yet, but plans to eventually.

"It's an opportunity," he said, "to contribute to this administration, and to work closely with White House technology, especially as applied to the records of this country."

Staff writer Cate Lecuyer can be reached at