Campus News

Don’t mess with the archivist

When it comes to preserving our nation’s records, 10th U.S. Archivist David Ferriero holds everyone accountable.

David S. Ferriero
David S. Ferriero served as the 10th Archivist of the United States from November 2009 until his retirement in April 2022. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

As U.S. Archivist David Ferriero watched news coverage of Inauguration Day 2021, he noticed something troubling when President Donald Trump and wife Melania prepared to board Marine One on the White House South Lawn.

“A minion behind them was carrying a white records box,” he recalled. “And I’m like, ‘What the hell is he doing?’”

Ferriero subsequently requested the return of missing records and retrieved 15 boxes from the former president in February 2022. Upon discovering classified documents in the boxes, Ferriero alerted the Department of Justice, eventually resulting in the Aug. 8 FBI raid at the Trump residence at Mar-a-Lago.

Ferriero, who retired from his position in April, shared this and other revelations Sept. 16 at the 2022 Henderson Lecture, a hybrid event hosted by the School of Information and Library Science. SILS dean Gary Marchionini posed questions to Ferriero for an audience of about 50 people in the Pleasants Family Assembly Room of Wilson Library and another 49 watching the livestream. The lecture honors the memory of former SILS dean Lucile Kelling Henderson.

Political savvy

Because the Mar-a-Lago raid is in litigation, Ferriero couldn’t say much more about it. But he did field a related question about the difference between classified and declassified information.

“A lot of people are convinced that you can wave a wand and it’s declassified, and that’s not the way it works,” he said. “In terms of declassification, everyone who has an equity in that document has to sign off on it. There isn’t one person who has the ability to say, ‘This is declassified.’”

In other litigation, Ferriero found himself embroiled in competing lawsuits to compel him to include the Equal Rights Amendment in the Constitution and to exclude it. That’s because the U.S. Archivist performs a “ministerial role” in certifying the ratification of amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Introduced in 1972, the Equal Rights Amendment followed a particularly confusing path, with states voting to ratify and rescind ratification over the decades, and some ratifying long after the 1982 deadline. Ferriero shared that the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg advised that “we need to start over” with the amendment to secure women’s legal rights.

Both incidents show just how politically charged even the National Archives and Records Administration can become.

“Political savvy” is a useful skill, Ferriero said, in addressing a question about what programs like SILS should be teaching. He began developing his as the top librarian at Duke University, learning “who has the power and how things get done.” His job became more directly political when he became director of the New York Public Libraries and had to figure out “who has the power, who controls the purse strings for the public and who you need to be sucking up to to get what you need.” Navigating New York turned out to be great preparation for his next position at the National Archives, where he had to deal with three separate branches of the federal government.

SILS Dean Gary Marchionini and David S. Ferriero

SILS Dean Gary Marchionini had a lively conversation with David S. Ferriero, retired U.S. Archivist, at the 2022 Lucile Kelling Henderson Lecture on Sept. 16. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Going digital

While political issues are what got the nation’s archivist in the headlines, what may be his legacy is his push to digitize the archives.

When he first came on board in 2009 as part of the Obama administration, Ferriero committed his office to Obama’s Open Government Initiative: transparency, participation and collaboration. In 2012 the Managing Government Records Directive put the federal government on a path to becoming completely digital. The Barack Obama Presidential Library will be the first to be completely digital, and the Donald J. Trump Presidential Library is also on an all-digital path.

“I scared a lot of people on my staff when I put a stake in the ground about digitizing everything. There’s 5 billion pieces of paper in the National Archives,” Ferriero said. A small part (about 200 million items) of that has been accomplished, “and thank God we did because during COVID, we were able to deliver a fair amount of service from our digitized information.”

Ferriero also embraced “citizen archivists” with a crowd-sourcing initiative to get the public more involved in identifying, sharing and describing federal records. As part of his office’s modernization of its approach to records, Ferriero encouraged the use of various social media platforms and opened an innovation hub within the agency.

Disappearing records

He believes in digitization, but Ferriero also has grave concerns about how easy it is for content that originates electronically — websites, newsletters, blogs, social media posts — to disappear.

“Can we trust the cloud to have enough traces for scholars years hence to reconstruct the work in this context?” Marchionini asked him.

“No, it’s one of those things that I worry about — that there’s so much content we are losing because we don’t have those mechanisms in place,” Ferriero said. “And for the federal government, it’s an issue that we’ve been trying to grapple with and don’t have really good solutions.”

Ferriero also brought up another better-known instance of disappearing records — the photos of pulpy papers plugging up White House toilets during the Trump years. When members of the White House Office of Records Management came for a tour of the archives near the end of his term, Ferriero had a special gift for longtime director Philip Droege.

“I presented Phil with a plunger with his name on it,” he said.

Watch the conversation online.