The Federal Coach: U.S. archivist, first librarian in job, faces big online task

Tuesday, May 25, 2010; B03

The nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and The Washington Post's On Leadership site jointly produce the Federal Coach, hosted by Tom Fox, director of the partnership's Center for Government Leadership.

The goal is to "engage, inspire and learn from you, the federal worker, whether you are a new hire, a contractor or a manager at the highest level."

There are three weekly installments:

Mondays: "Getting Ahead" -- advice on "leading up."

Wednesdays: "View From the Top Floor" -- interviews with federal leaders.

Fridays: Answering questions about navigating the federal workforce terrain.

Archives' online task is complex and huge

The "View From the Top Floor" interview was conducted by Tom Fox.

David S. Ferriero is the 10th archivist of the United States. In this role, he leads the National Archives and Records Administration, the nation's record keeper. Ferriero previously served as the Andrew W. Mellon director of the New York Public Libraries, where he led the development of the library's digital strategy.

As the first librarian to serve as archivist of the United States, what unique experience do you bring to the job?

I think my many years in libraries has provided me with a certain set of technical competencies around organization of information, but more importantly, thinking about an experience with users and how users interact with information. I've been in libraries through the introduction of technology up until current time -- with the Internet digitization and creating digital content -- and thinking about how we exploit technology for the same purposes and the user environment.

How do you engage your employees?

I listen to them. I have 44 facilities from Anchorage, Alaska, to Atlanta, Georgia. I've been getting out to those facilities and creating opportunities for the staff to talk to me so I get firsthand information about what is going to work. I now blog [at AOTUS: Collector in Chief], which is another vehicle for people to communicate with me. I put a premium on paying attention to what people have to say. As someone who started his career shelving books in a library at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I always had my mind on those people coming up behind me to ensure that the quality of the work environment was not only adequate but a place where people want to work.

How did you learn to be a good listener?

I was trained as a psychiatric technician, so I spent a lot of time with psychiatric patients, group therapy, that kind of thing. It's a skill which I thought I would never use again, but every day is something.

What is the most important thing that you're trying to achieve during your tenure as archivist?

I think the electronic records archive is probably the biggest, most complex, visible and important project that we need to get running. Citizens will be able to, from their home, at any time of the day or night, access the records of the government.

All of the agencies now are experimenting with electronic records, and our job is to make sure that we have created the capacity to ingest these records, keep them for perpetuity and make them available in perpetuity. So that, I think is my biggest chore.

As the record keeper of our national heritage, what are your favorite records and why?

Well, you know, we have 10 billion things here. Every day I'm learning more about exactly what we have in this collection, so I have a new favorite every day. One of my favorites, of course, is the Act from the 73rd Congress in January 1934, which actually established the archives. That's very important, maybe not glamorous, but one that I keep in front of me to remind me of why I'm here and what this job is all about.

On a more personal note, I have hanging in my office a facsimile of a Charles Ware drawing of the USS Constitution, which is the oldest naval vessel still in commission, built in the late 1700s. It's in Boston harbor, and it's a ship that I spent a lot of time on as a kid growing up there, so I have a constant reminder of my own childhood.

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