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David Ferriero is America’s 10th U.S. Archivist. He heads the National Archives and ensures that government records of historic value—from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to modern-day presidential tweets—are saved, preserved and made available to the public.

How were government records stored in the Founding era?

That’s a terrible story. Records ended up in attics, warehouses, underwater, burned up in fires, lost, stolen—you name it. They were infested with vermin and commingled with whiskey bottles. Robert Connor, the first U.S. Archivist, noted the discovery of the skull of a dead cat protruding from government documents stored in a Washington warehouse. During a fire at the Treasury Department in 1801, John Adams actually joined the bucket brigade to help salvage as much as he could.

When were the records consolidated in a central place?

It wasn’t until 1933 that the cornerstone was laid for a National Archives building in Washington, D.C., which President Herbert Hoover described as a “temple of our history.” But the Archives as we know it was really Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s baby. FDR conceived of the Archives as a central repository for all official records from the federal government deemed to be permanently valuable. When they began moving everything into the new building in 1935, however, they immediately ran out of space. Today we keep 2 or 3 percent of all records generated by some 250 different federal agencies in 44 National Archives facilities nationwide. That’s roughly 10 billion text-based records, 30 million photographs, 3.5 million architectural drawings and engineering design plans, 32,000 artifacts and more.

I understand you even store some files in a secret cave.

It’s not so secret, but yes, in Valmeyer, Ill., and Lenexa, Kan., we use space in limestone caves. The temperature and humidity levels there are perfect for preserving paper-based records.

What is the scope of historic materials in the collection?

At the 13 presidential libraries, which are part of the agency, we have a combination of historic papers as well as artifacts such as gifts from heads of state and American citizens. On the archival side, you name an event in American history, and I can probably point to some document that you would be stunned to know exists. For example, you know we bought Alaska from the Russians, but did you know there’s actually a canceled check for $7.2 million dollars drawn on the Riggs Bank here in Washington? That check is in our collection. You know we made the Louisiana Purchase; well, there’s actually a treaty for it. Annie Oakley during the Spanish-American War wrote a letter to William McKinley offering to supply 50 sharpshooter women fighters. We have the letter. It says the women were going to bring their own rifles! We also have a copy of the first issue of Mad magazine, and the first Superman comic strip. A size-22 sneaker from Shaquille O’Neal is in the George W. Bush library.

What items have you asked archivists to pull for you recently?

I’ve been reading a lot of Walt Whitman lately, and I knew he had a government job that he was fired from because his supervisors suspected him of writing Leaves of Grass at his desk. So I asked to see his personnel record. There in his Bureau of Indian Affairs job application was a five-page letter of recommendation written by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ralph. Waldo. Emerson! He goes on and on about what a great poet Whitman was. But it was a pretty lukewarm endorsement of his fitness for the job.

Are there items in the Archives that haven’t been examined since they were created?

Yes. One very active researcher recently found a Revolutionary War soldier’s diary that we had no idea existed. We’ve also got this wonderful group of volunteers that has worked with Civil War service and pension records for 16 years, helping preserve them and make them available on microfilm and the Internet. These documents were wrapped, folded and tied in what was once red tape but is now pink because it’s so old. They’ve literally been cutting the red tape— that’s where the term comes from— and examining the records for the first time. It’s quite extraordinary.

What about classified reports?

We have a presidential mandate to review more than 400 million pages of classified information going back to World War I and to declassify as much as possible by the end of 2013. We have started the National Declassification Center to accelerate this process.

How has the Archives’ mission evolved since the 1930s?

I think there’s been a real shift in attitude concerning general public access to the records. We want to educate people about our history and excite them with stories, to remind them that past is prologue.

How have you been reaching out to average Americans?

About a million people a year go through the rotunda of the main National Archives building to see the Charters of Freedom and the Public Vaults permanent exhibition, which exposes them to more of the collection. We also put on exhibits here and at our facilities around the country. And we’re doing more and more online.

How much of the collection has been digitized?

Less than 1 percent so far. We’ve started with the most requested material, which consists primarily of military and genealogical records. If I had my way, all 10 billion documents would be digitized.

What are you doing to increase the Archives’ online presence?

The attitude for years was build a physical facility and people will visit. When we started digitizing our collection for the Web site in the mid-1990s, we had a similar approach: Build a digital facility and expect people to find it. Well, the world has changed. We’re being very deliberate now about identifying where people spend time online, and trying to get our content there.

Where has that led you?

Flickr is a place many people look for online photographs, so we’re uploading as much as we can to a National Archives Flickr page. Same thing with YouTube. I’m the first U.S. Archivist with a Facebook page as well as the first to tweet and to blog. A lot of federal agencies are now using social media tools, and since we’re responsible for some of that output, it makes sense for us to experiment with the new technologies, too.

What other online projects do you have in the works?

We’re promoting the activities of what I call “citizen archivists.” In all my years working in research collections, I’d watch as a researcher would come in and learn so much more about a subject than a staff member had time for, then go off and create some wonderful products—books, journal articles—that we might never hear about. So we’ve created a Wiki, a space online where citizen archivists can share everything they’ve learned so that the next person interested in a subject starts researching from a different place.

What challenges does the Archives face going forward?

I see parallels with the challenges that Connor, the first U.S. Archivist, faced. Since more business is done electronically these days, there’s a risk of losing records to data crashes and especially to deletion. We recently did an assessment of all the agencies we work with: 80 percent self-identified as having a moderate-to-high risk of electronic record loss. That means we have some real work to do getting the right processes in place to help our government officials do a better job of creating, maintaining and transferring their electronic records to us. That’s definitely our biggest challenge.

Will Americans still have Archives buildings to visit in 50 years?

Oh, my gosh, yes. The strategy will never be digitize and discard. We’ll always preserve physical artifacts. Take the Louisiana Purchase: We’ve digitized it, but we’ve also kept it in a gorgeous frame.


Originally published in the December 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here