Finding American Treasures With The New Archivist

Some 10 billion things are housed in the National Archives, from the monumental to the miniscule, and David Ferriero is now in charge of them all. He'll be sworn in Wednesday as the new Archivist of the United States, the 10th person to hold the position, and the first librarian. Host Liane Hansen visits the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and tours the "treasures vault" with Ferriero.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

He Googled me - the archivist of the United States Googled me. Let me explain. This wasn't just random curiosity on his part. We had arranged to go to the National Archives in Washington, D.C. to interview David Ferriero, the new archivist of the United States. Mr. Ferriero, who will be sworn in this Wednesday, is the tenth person and the first librarian to hold the position.

So, like any good librarian, David Ferriero did his research. He learned that I ice skate, tap dance, used to live in London and was born in Massachusetts and that WEEKEND EDITION had won a James Beard Award in 1999 for a segment about a pork product in a blue can - Spam.

Mr. DAVID FERRIERO (Archivist, The National Archives): From the Eisenhower library, this came in this morning. This is a letter from Ike to Hormel congratulating them on their 75th anniversary of business. May I offer you my heartiest congratulations. You might be surprised to learn that I have long felt a certain kinship with your company, during World War II, of course. I ate my share of Spam along with millions of other soldiers. I'll even confess to a few unkind remarks about it uttered during the strain of battle - you understand. But as former commander of chief, I believe I can still especially forgive you your only sin - sending us so much of it.

HANSEN: This is an awesome responsibility that you have. I mean, we are sitting in the National Archives where one can come and see the Declaration of Independence, for example. It's the building that people know. What else are you in charge of?

Mr. FERRIERO: The largest facility that we have is actually on the campus of University of Maryland in College Park - a million-plus square feet of space. And then we have the presidential library system - 12, soon to be 13 presidential libraries - and then a series of regional records and archive centers around the country.

HANSEN: How do you...

Mr. FERRIERO: So, the entire collection is a collection of 10 billion items.

HANSEN: Ten billion items?

Mr. FERRIERO: Billion.

HANSEN: Okay. Ten billion things to worry about. What's your mission, your mandate, as it were?

Mr. FERRIERO: It is to collect, protect and make available the record of the United States in the simplest terms.

HANSEN: That collection includes treaties, military records, presidential letters, laws as well as ship manifests from Ellis Island and elsewhere, because people come here to research their family genealogy. There are also some curious items in the archives - Eva Braun's home movies, a letter from Elvis to Richard Nixon and President Carter's likeness painted on a grain of rice.

Some 10 billion things are housed in the National Archives, from the monumental to the miniscule. And David Ferriero is in charge of them all. New stuff is submitted every day. No wonder the new archivist is a Nancy Drew fan.

Mr. FERRIERO: Reference work is detective work, and I'm still very passionate about that reference aspect of getting involved in searching for information.

HANSEN: What's the first thing you want to see when you came to this building? What were you dying to be able to see?

Mr. FERRIERO: Well, it hasn't actually happened yet. But I grew up in Beverly, Massachusetts, and when I was growing up Beverly was the birthplace of the American Navy. And then somehow when I left Beverly, Marblehead scooped Beverly. So, one of my goals here in my tenure is to really determine whether Beverly is the birthplace of the American Navy.

But I can tell you one of the most exciting things that I have seen is the check with which we purchased Alaska - $7.2 million.

HANSEN: Why does that excite you so much?

Mr. FERRIERO: I didn't think that we just wrote a check. So, I was just amazed that there was actually a piece of paper that had been actually endorsed by a Russian on the back.

HANSEN: David Ferriero guided us into the bowels of the National Archives to see that check. It's in one of the treasures vaults.

Mr. FERRIERO: Where people don't ordinarily get to visit.

HANSEN: A magnetic card and a key are needed to enter. Everything in here is precious, important to the history of the U.S. government and not accessible to the public. This huge room filled with shelves, uniformly stacked with horizontal document boxes smells of history - a combination of old paper and clean air, a perfectly controlled environment to protect the collection.

Ms. JANE FITZGERALD (Civil and Old Military Archivist, National Archives): This is the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War.

HANSEN: Civil and Old Military Records Archivist Jane Fitzgerald flipped through the impressive treaty. Many of its pages were faded and very difficult to read.

Ms. FITZGERALD: And this is a signature page. You may recognize some significant signatures.

HANSEN: John Adams, Ben Franklin, John Jay - is that, that's John Jay - and Mr., is that Hartley?

Ms. FITZGERALD: David Hartley.

HANSEN: David Hartley, done in Paris.

At the bottom of that page, are a series of red wax seals bearing the imprint of each man's signet ring. The documents in the treasures vault are centuries old. Wampum beads are attached to one treaty signed with Midwestern Indian tribes.

The archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, is responsible for protecting the old as well as collecting and protecting the new. And that will include the monumental task of putting the contents of the archives online.

Mr. FERRIERO: We have 10 billion things. It's going to be a long time.

HANSEN: That work officially begins when David Ferriero is sworn in as the 10th archivist of the United States on January 13.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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