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Tuesday Keynote–David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States

David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States (AOTUS), was interviewed by Paul Holdengraber from the New York Public Library.  Ferriero is the first librarian to hold the post, and he has achieved some fame by creating his own blog, AOTUS, Collector in Chief.  The Archivist and his Agency, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), reports to the Executive department and is responsible for the records of the US.  About 2-3% of the government’s records become permanent, and are deposited with NARA.  NARA is also responsible for the Presidential Libraries and the recently created National Declassification Center.  David Ferriero is the highest ranking librarian in the Administration.  (Previous Archivists have generally been historians.)  He was previously a librarian at Duke University and he New York Public  Library.  When he was approached about the Archivist job, one reason he took it was that he felt he could make a difference.  NARA was recently given two new initiatives by President Obama:  the National Declassification Center—400 million pages that need examination and declassification—and the Open Government Initiative (OGI).

The OGI is about transparency, collaboration, and participation.  Each agency will create an Open Government plan around those pillars.  At NARA, this has unleashed energy and talents that were previously unknown.  Ferriero’s blog is the result of the OGI and has created community and gotten citizens involved as “citizen archivists”.

You cannot have open government if you don’t have good records.  Open Government starts withrecords management, right from their creation.  When IT systems are being developed in an agency, records must be thought about from the beginning.  This message will be conveyed to all the agencies in an historic meeting at the National Archives; many of the CIOs of the agencies have never met with NARA.  Every agency has been authorized to build its own e-records system, so NARA’s job is “corralling” the records that have been assembled, which is similar to collecting the records in the first place during FDR’s time.  NARA is looking at ways of opening the Archives as they have never been opened before through a robust exhibit program with an online version, a K-12 program, as well as a redesigned website.

NARA has been involved in classification of documents since 1978.  The government has an enormous backlog of documents going back to World War II.  According to the Executive Order establishing the National Declassification Center, the only criterion for remaining classified is national security.  There are about 200 agencies in the government and 2,400 classification guides, of which 50% have not been reviewed in the last 5 years.  NARA is investigating ways to use technology to do the huge job of review and declassification.

In the digital environment, everything is saved but little is preserved.  Ferriero and others are concerned that we are losing our memory.  For example, e-mail is not recognized as a record by the Federal Government.  The House has just introduced a bill to correct this.  Large digitization projects have developed their own languages that lock up the content for a period of time.  The lack of immediate access is another concern.

Despite his heavy involvement with online systems (he is a heavy user of Wikipedia and Google), Ferriero does not own a Kindle and values the aesthetics of print on page .  He is a heavy reader (2 books per week) and for reading, he still wants the print.  His greatest concern is the preservation of electronic records.  He suggests that librarians  push their supervisors and look for opportunities to get their ideas out.

Don Hawkins
Columnist, Information Today, CIL 2010 Blog Coordinator

Collector in Chief Won’t Shush Us

Tuesday’s keynote speaker, David Ferriero, the 10th archivist of the US, was profiled in a recent New York Times article, titled “Collector in Chief Hoards Nation’s Irreplaceable Stuff.” Not a bad article, if you ignore the sentence maligning librarians as a “stereotypical library scold shushing people in a reading room.” Ferriero is, in fact, a librarian by education (his MLS is from Simmons) who seems genuinely excited by his archivist job. I’m looking forward to hearing him speak at CIL about information ecology, libraries, digitization, and whatever else strikes his fancy (and that of his interviewer for the session, the ever-entertaining Paul Holdengraber).

Who Owns Antiquity?

The ALCTS President’s Program featured James Cuno, President and Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, asking the question of “who owns antiquity: museums and the battle over our ancient heritage.” Culture has never known national borders. These are artificial constructions made by people. He feels uncomfortable when he hears “the Greeks do this” or “the Chinese do this” or “the Americans do this.” Individuals do things, not nationalities, and individuals don’t always agree with their governments. All Greeks, Chinese, American people don’t always do the same thing. The borders of today, imposed upon culture, don’t make sense. Do artifacts belong in the place where they were made? The question implies that geography rather than people created them.  

 Should they be returned? Some hold very simplistic views of this. Cuno thinks that you can’t correct history nor is it clear that it should be corrected. It doesn’t discourage looting. Looting is not a pastime, it’s an act of desperate people in desperate times, trying to make a living. The international legal system to prevent archaeological looting actually creates a black market, consolidates and concentrates risk, and presenting a false view of culture as national rather than historical.

 Museums help us be curious about the world. It’s hard today to excavate and share. Overwhelmingly now, things must stay where they are found. Nationalism makes it difficult to create museums that encourage curiosity. It’s too easy to co-opt antiquity for the political present. Encyclopedic museums exist only where the Enlightenment flourished. It’s not just First World.

 Should the Elgin Marbles be returned? Where would they go? Is there any evidence that it was acquired illegally? No, to the latter. Permission was granted for their removal from the Parthenon. Encyclopedic museums, such as the British Museum, provide context for their collections.

 Who owns antiquity? We all do, but governments have jurisdiction over it. Antiquity is part of a political argument, which is unfortunate. We, as librarians and museum professionals are dedicated to preserving cultural heritage. Thus, it’s important to recognize the political aspects of antiquity.


Librarian challenges Cuno’s view of culture as simplistic, disagrees that nationalism and racism are germane to ownership of antiquity. Cuno agrees that his definition of culture is oversimplified, that collections are built on partage, and that some collections don’t provide enough context. Perhaps fragments of things should be consolidated somewhere, but where? Things that are broken ought to be fixed.

 Another librarian applauds Cuno for being politically incorrect. Will there be more flexibility in intellectual property laws? Cuno thinks there is more recognition of the pressure of politics. But he doesn’t see much change in legal system.

 Question about digitization. This can help scholars put together geographically scattered fragments.

 Marydee Ojala, Editor, ONLINE: Exploring Technology & Resources for Information Professionals