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Archivist of United States has love of libraries and letter writing

Joe Gross

When David S. Ferriero was a kid, he liked writing to U.S. presidents. A lot.

These days, he's the archivist of the United States, which means he is responsible for the National Archives and Records Administration, the agency that preserves government and historical records and aids in public access to those documents.

It also maintains and administers the 13 presidential libraries, preserving documents of every U.S. president since Herbert Hoover.

Ferriero was in town last month , speaking at a forum on the preservation of electronic records, perhaps the most important issue facing official records keepers. We're sitting outside a Starbucks near his hotel on Fourth Street; he doesn't drink anything - "I'm all coffeed out."

Ferriero was confirmed as the archivist last fall and met with the heads of the 13 libraries soon after, touring the Carter library with President Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter.

"After the tour, the meeting started," Ferriero said. "Everyone is introducing themselves, and we got to Tom Putnam, the director of the Kennedy Library," Ferriero continues. "Tom pulls out a copy of a letter I sent to President Kennedy asking him for information on the just-announced Peace Corps. I must have been about 13 or 14. It was a startling moment for me."

This was some very impressive kissing-up. "I had no memory of writing the letter," Ferriero said. "But the best part was watching the faces of the other directors - `Oh my God, how am I gonna top this.'"

Turns out they could. Turns out Ferriero wrote a lot of letters to a lot of presidents. Turns out there are four of them in all, the one to Kennedy, two to Eisenhower and one to Johnson (the last of which, a request for a copy of the Civil Rights Act, was found in the archive over at the LBJ Library and shown to him on his Austin trip).

"I guess I didn't have a life," Ferriero laughs. "I did get a response from Sherman Adams, Eisenhower's chief of staff, thanking me for the friendly letter and the pet elephant."

Um, what?

"I obviously sent something along," he says, still laughing. "So I called the director (Karl Weissenbach) and said, `OK, Karl, where is the elephant?'"

Turns out Eisenhower passed those sorts of gifts along to his grandchildren, so maybe David Eisenhower has it somewhere.

"It's been really great because I meet with a lot of school groups, and I tell them the story and encourage them to write to the President," Ferriero says.

He might be in charge of the National Archives now, but in his heart, Ferriero is a library man.

He worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for 31 years, rising to associate director for public services and acting co-director of libraries.

"I started shelving books," he says. "I saw the transition from card catalogs to online card catalogs and into the digital age," which is exactly the sort of broad view the Obama administration was looking for. After a stint at Duke as University Librarian from 1996 to 2004, Ferriero moved to the New York Public Library, where he served as director.

While there he helped integrate the four research libraries and 87 branch libraries into a seamless service for users, creating the largest public library system in the United States.

"I had never worked in a public library and never really understood the value of neighborhood library, the community center aspect to it, before I went to New York," Ferriero says. "New York is still very much an immigrant city, and the acculturation process takes place at libraries."

In fact, Ferriero says the public library is the only place that fully 50 percent of New Yorkers have access to the Internet. A public library plays a crucial role in helping people find a job or post a résumé, especially during an economic downturn.

"This is the worst time in the world to be reducing the level of support for libraries," Ferriero said. "Cities should be investing in libraries. I think a lot of people have a very dated impression of libraries and don't really understand the crucial part they play in the lives of individuals. Maybe decision makers haven't had the need for libraries themselves. Maybe they can afford to go to Barnes and Noble and have Internet access at home. Why would they go to a library?"

(On May 6, a few weeks after we spoke, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a cut of $36 million to the library system. It is estimated that 10 libraries would have to close; those that remain open would have their hours reduced to four days per week, and 36 percent of the library's work force could be out of a job. Austin has faced its own library budget dramas, but nothing that drastic. Fierrero could not be reached for comment.)

Of course, Ferriero has a different job now. These days, his primary concern is what to do, for example, with all those e-mails.

E-mail has been used by presidents since the Reagan administration. Between Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Ferriero says it's estimated that about 74 million e-mails were generated by the White House. There were about 150 million under Bill Clinton, 250 million under George W. Bush.

"We're predicting that Obama's presidency will generate about 1 billion e-mails," Ferriero says. "And that's not counting social media that the White House is using." Ferriero's job is, in part, to figure out how to get all of the federal government on the same page in terms of electronic records keeping, management and storage, to do his best to create a unified system of records keeping in an age when most of those records are going to be electronic, when the presidential libraries of the future might be a series of massive hard drives rather than stacks of boxes of paper.

"In some ways, it recalls what the very first Archivist of the United States, Robert Connor, faced," Ferriero says. "When he started archives in 1934, he had to convince all those agencies to give up their records. They were being stored in garages and attics, and stuff was being lost. We want to prevent that from happening to all this digital stuff."

The idea, of course, is that someday, the e-mail that the 2040 Archivist to the United States is writing to President Obama today will be saved and that the head of the Obama Library can impress his boss with it. It sure worked on the guy who has the job now.; 912-5926