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New head of National Archives is first librarian in the post

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David S. Ferriero once helped run a recreation program for criminally insane men at a Connecticut mental hospital. He is a Vietnam veteran, and served as a Navy corpsman during the war. He has raised orchids, run the Boston marathon, and is a renowned baker of employee birthday cakes. He loves Mozart, and southern writers. And, although he is the tenth Archivist of the United States, he is the first librarian to hold the post.

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By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 7, 2009

Deep inside the gray stone fortress of the National Archives building downtown, amid dimly lit stacks protected by locked doors, the new archivist of the United States takes down a box containing a document dating back almost 200 years.

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An erudite, gray-haired man with 40 years' experience in elite libraries, David S. Ferriero removes a manila envelope and takes out a precious shard of the nation's history: a carefully preserved record of . . .

"I don't have my glasses," he says. There is an impish look on his face, but the new keeper of such sacred treasures as the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and several billion other items has, indeed, left his spectacles in his office.

"Could you tell me what this is?" he asks an aide. "What does this say?"

It was a telling moment: Although Ferriero, 63, had not brought his glasses to the stacks late last month, he came armed with the dry wit and sense of humility friends say he brings to one of the nation's most hallowed government repositories.

"It's an awesome responsibility," he said in the echoing rotunda of the building. "It's a stewardship kind of responsibility -- a long-term commitment by the U.S. government to ensure that these documents are available in perpetuity and available to the American public.

"I have 10 billion things I have to worry about," he said, citing the archives' estimated holdings.

A huge portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who signed the bill creating the archives, hangs in Ferriero's downtown office, which is just down the hall from the encasements holding the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. The document he couldn't read, by the way, was a War of 1812 pension record.

"I walk in the building and it's like, 'What am doing here? Do I belong here?' " he said. "I have been extraordinarily lucky."

Ferriero once helped run a recreation program for criminally insane men at a Connecticut mental hospital. He is a Vietnam veteran and served as a Navy corpsman during the war.

He has raised orchids and run the Boston Marathon and is a renowned baker of birthday cakes for employees. He loves Mozart and Southern writers. And, although he is the 10th archivist of the United States, he is the first librarian to hold the post.

A wide kingdom

Ferriero, who looks as much like an amiable police detective as an academic, was nominated by President Obama on July 28 and confirmed by the Senate on Nov. 6. His name rhymes with "stereo."


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