118 - The Nation's 10th Keeper David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States
Radio. Welcome to the kitchen sisters present. We're the kitchen sisters, Dave Nelson and Nikki Silva. Let's be clear. The papers don't belong to Brad Kavanagh, George Bush, or Donald Trump. They belong to the American people. That's why we have a national archives. It's a foundation of our democracy, having records of what transpired in the great history of this nation informs us, and it's like a dictatorship to say those records should not be available or only the pieces that we want should be available. That's not the free and open debate. That's not the democracy treasure here in America. At Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, you might remember the controversy surrounding the nomination of judge. Brett Cavanaugh to the supreme court in July two thousand eighteen I know that was many, many controversies ago. But the Democrats wanted the national archives to release all of their records, relating to Cavanaugh immediately over a million pages over six hundred forty five thousand emails. Here's Senator Schumer again I called the archivist myself yesterday. I made a request of him that even if the Bush library, even if the Republican lawyers, even if chairman Grassley says, don't give up the records that he should have the strength the courage and the fidelity to what an archives is about to give us those records. The person Schumer talked to was David Ferrie, the head of the national archives appointed by President Obama in two thousand ten there's an entire webpage on the national archive site devoted to the back and forth between David Ferrie out, the Democrats, the Republicans to foia lawsuits that were filed and the release of over one hundred thousand documents to date, relating to cabin such is the job of the archivist of the United States who knew in two thousand seventeen when we began our keeper series about activists, archivists rogue librarians, and protectors of the free flow of information. We sat down with David Farrow to talk about his work, and the history and mission of the national archives today, the kitchen sisters present the nation's tenth keeper. David Barrio archivist of the United States. I'm David vario I'm the archivist of the United States. I am responsible for an agency that has the. Ability for ensuring that the records of the US government are created maintained and delivered to us in the manner that the American public can have access to them in perpetuity. How does the word keeper resonate with you? It's an important part of the responsibility. But I'm much more focused on access. There's a reason for keeping its to make records available from the very beginning the intent was, and this is Franklin Roosevelt. The archives was created that the American people needed to be able to access the records in order to hold the government accountable for its actions. And that's keeping means. There has been concerned from the very beginning about the records wonderful letter from Thomas. Jefferson in Paris, and think it's seventeen Eighty-nine where he's talking about we've got to do something about the records because day by day they're they're at risk. In fact, continental congress the last session, there was a wonderful debate about the journalists of the convention, and whether they should burn them or not less. They fall into the wrong hands and left it up to George Washington to make that decision and he said, I think we'd better keep him in. We have them. From the very beginning. They were people who are dead serious about ensuring that the records are kept we have all the oath of allegiance, signed Valley, Forge by George Washington's turps. They had no food they had no uniforms, but they had thousands of pre-printed forms. That they had to sign and witness. And that was the beginning, the beginning of government bureaucracy. My favorite person might hero in all of this is a clerked in the State Department, and Stephen, Pleasanton, who the night before the British burned the town in eighteen twelve or eighteen twelve realized that the chargers were at risk. Can he roll them up stuff them into linen sex commandeer to wagon on the street and took them into the ills of Virginia? Yeah. The only reason that the constitution and the declaration of independence and the Bill of rights have survived his because of Stephen Pleasanton. Do you think there's a certain personality involved here in the keeping and Pleasanton obsessive compulsive? Is that what you're after? Anal retentive now, there's a belief in documentation, there's a belief in ensuring that our history is preserved. And there's I think the from the very beginning a realization that something important is going on recognizing the future. Generations are going to want to know what's going on. Okay. FDR says we've got to keep these things then what happens after are was. I'm convinced was a closet archivist himself. He called the archives his baby designed a box two houses papers, which is the prototype of the boxes that we use. Now, he hired the first archivist Robert de w Connor his papers are at Chapel Hill. I was limited joke in. So when I was going through my confirmation hearing, I called my friends at Chapel Hill in. They sent me copies of everything that caught a wrote about what he was up against what it was like what is interview is like, with FDR was summer. He was wearing a woollen suit and his songwriting bullets and the president asking now it is. It's pronounced archivist. Right. Not archivist. So from the very beginning, though, is this, how do you pronounce it? What is what is it all about? So he puts up a call was everybody running up to him with these collections. Oh my God. That was that was the biggest problem he had. That's just cracks me up. You want me to give up my records about you're talking about nothing changes some of the pictures from Connors early visits shows horrible conditions records, are stored in Addison basements, all over town records of the White House during the Hayes administration, kept in garage on the White House lawn. Fire broke out the president himself was out there in the bucket brigade. Putting the fire out to save the records. It's amazing. What has survived has survived. So it turns out certain agencies weren't willing to cooperate it got to the point, where if DR ahead to kind of lay down the law with the cabinet. He arranged to be wheeled over to the State Department after hours to take a look at the records that were being kept because State Department said, we need all of these records for our active business. We need to have them right here FDR describes this long narrow room with filing cabinets on each side of the room and heals himself up to one of them at random opens a drawer, pulls out a file Mongolian ponies a report on. Mongolian ponies. Okay. So he discovered that report. This is nineteen thirties, was never transferred. Is it didn't by custody? Do I have it? We don't have it at the, the national archives. Some working the State Department deceit juice still have that report. I wanna use it somehow your love of librarian ship, and archiving. Where did that come from? When I was a kid, I grew up in north Beverly Massachusetts. And there was a branch of the public library within walking distance. I was old enough to be able to go to the barber which was across the street by myself. I could go across the street to the branch at the public library, which happened to be in a flora shop conscious florist shop, the head one bookcase with probably five shelves on the bottom shelf for the kids books, and that was my introduction to libraries, sitting on the floor against they're sitting on the floor surrounded by buckets of fresh flowers. It's wonderful, wonderful experience. So how, how do you get picked to be the keeper of the archives? That's a good question because I've been very fortunate. I've had. I've had great jobs. So I met the New York public expecting to retired from the New York public, it was April two thousand nine a check up the phone and this twelve year old was working on appointments for the president says Archer surprised to be getting a call from the White House. I'm like, what is this? And he said, he said, we're looking at you for archivists in the United States. I said, you know, I think you're looking at the wrong guy, I've, I've never contributed. A lot of money to a campaign. You've never hired anyone who knows the business. I mean, the last the governor of Kansas was the archivist of the United States. It's a political appointment, it became clear that they were serious. They wanted someone who knew the business and it was all around. The president's open government initiative, and the belief that the national archives had an important role to play in the oven government initiative. So they wanted someone who knew the business and was experienced in digital technology in all those kinds of things. But what's happening there that you felt you could push in a new direction the shift from paper to electric records, the government had been in a purely paper mode, the guidance from the national archives to the agency was print and save so being able to manage that shift from paper to electron recordkeeping, was huge in, then the whole concept of open government, making records available opening up declassifying the argument that continued to make is you can't have open government. If you don't have good records management, President Obama issued a memory and among managing government records, first time since the Truman. Administration that the White House has gotten involved in records management. The national archives is responsible for fourteen presidential libraries, when I became the archivist admit with the directors of those libraries for the first time they went around the room and introduce themselves and the director of the candidate, and it's me a copy of a letter that a kid wrote to the president asking for information about the proposed peace corps. It's letter for me. Don't remember ever writing the letter. So there was that was my signature more stunning was watching the faces of the other twelve directors. Because they were like, oh my God. How am I going to talk this? So sure enough within two weeks. The director of the Eisenhower called to say they found two letters from me to President Eisenhower. And when I was at the LBJ, they handed me the copy of a letter that I wrote to LBJ congratulating him for signing the Civil Rights Act. A nerd, obviously didn't have a life. I was writing letters to the president. A letter of condolence to Jackie Kennedy, you know, it's they they're still finding stuff. I think we almost have enough for a private exhibit of David Ferriol correspondence with the president's. We'll be right back with David Farrow, and stories of the map thief. And what happens when people can no longer read cursive. The kitchen sisters present is sponsored by myrow a Platt power deodorant made with a blend of one hundred percent natural sense and essential oils that release over time to keep you fresh. My rodeo is vegan gluten free Soifer free and cruelty free with no toxic anything and it works. I like the smell it subtle and natural I tried out cabin. Number five Woody and fresh. But subtle one of my favorite features is my rose refillable case, which reduces plastic waste by approximately fifty percent versus typical drugstore deodorants. He'll receive a three D odorant pod refill every three months delivered straight to your door. You can mix and match sense press. Pause or cancel refills. Anytime get fifty percent off your first order and get started today for just five dollars. Visit my myrow dot com slash kitchen, sisters and use promo code kitchen sisters. That's. M. Y. M. Y. R. Oh dot com slash kitchen, sisters and use promo code kitchen. Sisters. Tension between protection and access. It's the biggest issue. And it's an issue that all of us in these kinds of institutions, whether it's a library archives are museum deal with every day. In every one of my jobs. I've been through horrible situations where stuff is disappeared. Stuff has been destroyed cases like guy who ingratiated himself to several presidential libraries, especially in effect at a career as a presidential historian, still several drafts of FDR speeches from the FDR in library. He had a suit coat that had deep pockets sewn into it. This is how we get stuff out in the evidence. File in the code itself behead. The map thief at the new York Public Library hit seven different institutions. I learned a lot from that one. You got something like thirty two maps from the new York, Public Library. Single sheet maps, but also maps in the backs of books. What he had done is gone to public libraries and stolen maps from circulating books, different sizes, shapes colors age of the paper in his pocket. He would have they samples. He would go to the rare book collection and ask for a book that had a map in it, and then he would take what that'll flaws use it to lifts. The rare map out and replace it with one that looked same size. When he returned the book, they would check to see whether there was a map there, but they would not open at the map, the have become so close to the map folks at the new York Public Library, he helped them form the Mercator society, the betrayal that the staff out when this all broke. But collection sits at about thirteen billion pieces of paper, forty three million photographs miles and miles of film and video and about six billion electron crackers so far, started collecting during the Reagan administration electronic mail. So between Reagan and Bush forty one about two point five million Email messages, twenty million from the Clinton White House, two hundred and ten million from Bush forty three and over three hundred million for Obama President Obama was the first administration to be seriously using Twitter. So we have all the Obama tweets the current president's tweets, we are capturing both the personal account, the real Donald Trump in the potus accounts, and the deleted once, you know, that's part of the capture. My favorite things. There is some documents that just. You know, from history that we bought Alaska is actually a check for seven point two million dollars to run on the Riggs Bank. And you flip it over, and there was the Russian endorsement of they just took this thing to the Riggs Bank and walked out with seven point two million dollars in gold. A wonderful letter from any Oakley to William McKinley, offering to raise a troop of fifty sharp shirt, or women, who would supply their own rifles ammunition to fight the Spanish American war. A letter from in nineteen seventeen. A letter from the president of the national association opposed women's suffrage to her. Congressman petitioning him to not vote for women's fridge, because it would result in the national campaign of nagging. Wonderful letter to FDR from kid in Cuba, is twelve or fourteen years old, asking the president for a ten dollar Bill because there's never seen it ten dollar Bill. And if the president would send him that he would show him where the or deposits are in Cuba, so he could Bill ships. It's a letter from Fidel Castro. I often wonder if, if only Roosevelt, it's sent that kid, ten dollar Bill would that have changed the course of history? That's what's so exciting about this business. Is that every day, there are these discoveries that are being made because there's so much stuff. And because, you know, most of the keepers have high level control over their collections, but not item level control. Every time a researcher concern and uses a set of records, we learned so much about what's in the collection, one of those recently found a letter that he soldier wrote to his mother, and in parentheses says written by Walt Whitman a friend. While Whitman spent time in the hospitals during the civil war. Doing this writing letters home for soldiers who couldn't right? The traditional role of archives has been collecting and protecting I huge shift or emphasis on excess. Social media has been a wonderful tool for all of us to use to get our stuff out there. So everytime one these discoveries is made its Ray out there. Everyone knows about it. Open this transparency. I mean, that's what that's what we're all about engaging, the community in the work that you're doing with the national archives citizen archivist program, where we have people transcribing our records cursive, isn't Todd anymore in the schools. And we've got billions of records in cursive, the kids today can't read, so we have a prescription program, where thousands of folks around the world are transcribing our records. So that kids can even three them forty three million photographs in the national archives. Not all of them have the appropriate level of identification. So we've got tagging projects going on all kinds of things to engage the community in the work that we're doing. We don't collect just the good stuff we collect everything that's a role, and we've got some bad stuff in our history. Indian treaties. Take a look at injuries. All of the things that the US government promised these people in terms of hospitals schools. Money for the land and never delivered on any of them. We have Indian elders and Indian lawyers, visit all the time to read the language of these treaties. Because there are still cases around water rights land rights that are being tried based on these documents. My office is in a right around the corner from the rotunda. So I can every day, see firsthand how those documents are affecting people about a million and a half people the year walking through the rotunda twice a year. We do naturalization ceremonies in the rotunda and new citizens, sworn in front of the constitution and is to see them experiencing the documents outlining the rights that are now there's. It just makes it all the more important that the work that we do as carries on that. Whereas for documenting what's going on the truth? Conversation with the tenth keeper of the United States was produced by the kitchen, sisters, Nikki Silva. N Davey Nelson with Nathan Dalton. And brandy hell special, thanks to David Farrow, in the national archives and to the society of American archivists. The kitchen sisters present is part of radio Tokyo from P, R X, a curated network of extraordinary, cutting edge podcasts created by independent producers. Visit the kitchen, sisters dot org to find out about our events and upcoming workshops, follow us on Facebook, Instagram Twitter. We'd love to hear your thoughts and ideas. Thanks for listening. Radio.