Sharing a sense of history
Ferriero is first librarian in charge at National Archives

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.

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."

He had been director of the research libraries of the New York Public Library system since 2004 and university librarian and vice provost for library affairs at Duke University since 1996. He oversaw Duke's $55 million library expansion into two new buildings. Before that, he worked in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology library for 31 years.

He succeeds Allen Weinstein, who resigned last December for health reasons.

Ferriero oversees the National Archives and Records Administration, which includes the archives buildings downtown and in College Park as well as 13 presidential libraries and 14 regional archives nationwide.

He is married to Gail Zimmermann, associate general manager of North Carolina's UNC-TV. She stayed in North Carolina when he got the job in New York and will not immediately relocate to Washington. "I have a good job," she said. "I really love what I do. We're going to commute, at least for a while."

Ferriero appears to have taken a substantial pay cut to come to Washington. The archivist's annual salary is $162,900, a spokeswoman said. Ferriero was reportedly earning twice that in New York.

The archives were established by Congress in 1934, and the first archivist was a North Carolinian, historian Robert Digges Wimberly Connor, whom Time magazine described as "a shy, heavyset, golfing, poker-playing pedagogue."

The road to D.C.

Ferriero, one of four siblings, grew up in the maritime town of Beverly, Mass., the descendant of Italian immigrants on his father's side and Irish immigrants on his mother's.

His father, Anthony, was a mechanic and salesman at a Ford dealership, drove a cab and did construction work. His mother, Marie, cleaned hospitals to earn money for Ferriero's education. He was the only one of his siblings to attend college.

Ferriero started college at Northeastern University in Boston. As part of the school's work-study program, he got the job running a recreation program for criminally insane men. "I was petrified," he said. "That first week I thought, 'What am I doing here?' But I fell in love with it."

He got bored with school, though, dropped out and joined the Navy. He became a corpsman, specializing in psychiatric care, but wound up triaging the wounded on a hospital ship. He said the experience was an invaluable lesson in real-life priorities.

He went back to school after Vietnam, took a job shelving books at MIT and found that the work in the library was much more than book shelving. He received two degrees in English literature from Northeastern and a master's from the Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science.

One of the big issues Ferriero faces, he and others say, is the proliferation of electronic government records and how they should be preserved.

As his successor at Duke, Deborah L. Jakubs, put it: "How do you develop policies for what you save? And how do you ensure that those things are going to be available? Because those things are the raw materials of history."

Paul LeClerc, president of the New York Public Library, praised the selection of Ferriero. Obama "turned to one of the great research librarians in the United States to manage the collections," he said. "The hope that I see is they will be of increased access to the world of scholarship and scholars in America. . . . What you want is people using the collections. You don't want them hidden away and locked up."

Ferriero, for his part, knows he has much to learn about his new job but said he has already learned one important lesson: "Never go into the stacks without my glasses!"

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