WASHINGTON — Until recently, David Ferriero's favorite artifact at the National Archives was the canceled $7.2 million check — "An actual check!" — that was used to purchase the territory of Alaska back in 1868.
But then last week, Ferriero, the archives' new director, saw an old American Indian treaty buried in a secret vault. It was etched on parchment and festooned with ribbons and, he recalled, "a string of the most beautiful cobalt blue and white beads."
"Wampum!" he exclaimed in a recent interview. "Have you ever seen wampum?"
By now, Ferriero probably has a new favorite item. For the nation's 10th archivist, the former director of New York's public libraries, the discoveries come daily.
Ferriero, 64, began work in November and had his ceremonial swearing-in Wednesday as the director of the National Archives and Records Administration. He was inaugurated into a little-known job that puts him not only at the helm of the United States' 10 billion-item trove of documents, but also at the forefront of efforts to make the U.S. government as transparent as possible to its citizens.
"One of our missions is to ensure people of the United States have access to the records," said Ferriero, who's the first librarian to lead the National Archives.
Beyond the so-called Charters of Freedom, written by our founding fathers, the National Archives holds old legislative bills, early sketches of the Apollo moon lander and formerly classified details on the attempted U.S. cover-up of a downed U-2 spy plane in the Soviet Union. There are decades of slave ship manifests, military records and immigration logs treasured by genealogists.
"The only way you can hold the government accountable is to have access to the way decisions are made, and the only way to do that is to have the records," said Lee White, the executive director of the National Coalition for History in Washington.
Ferriero worked his way up shelving books to associate director of libraries at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was Duke University's vice provost for libraries from 1996 until 2004, before he took over the public libraries for New York City.
"He's very smart, but he lacks pretense or arrogance," said Susan Nutter, who worked with Ferriero at MIT and now is the vice provost for libraries at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. "People support him, and they follow him. He is a true leader."
Ferriero also is the consummate librarian, delighting in history while promoting openness in government. He tries to wander every day through the National Archives' rotunda, home to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, to marvel alongside the tourists.
Yet Ferriero's tenure follows a difficult time for the National Archives. The agency fought the Bush administration over access to records after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and was accused by The New York Times of needing "spine-stiffening" in its dealings with the White House.
In 2003, Sandy Berger, former national security adviser to President Bill Clinton, took classified memos on terrorist plots from the National Archives and destroyed them. Berger later pleaded guilty to unauthorized removal of classified documents.
"It gets very, very political," said Deborah Jakubs, who succeeded Ferriero as university librarian and vice provost for library affairs at Duke. "What should be classified? When should it be unclassified?"
Asked recently whether he has the backbone to take on the White House over public records, Ferriero nodded.
"Oh, sure," he said. "And it's not just the White House. It's the government in general. I need to make sure that each agency is doing what they're supposed to be doing in the area of records. It's an oversight role."
There are 2,000 systems in government for classifying documents, Ferriero said. President Barack Obama last month announced the National Declassification Center and put Ferriero in charge of it.
Ferriero, working with agencies such as the armed forces and the CIA, has been given four years to go through 400 million pages of federal documents that remain top secret. They date to World War I.
The exercise is beyond academic, said Steven Aftergood, the director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.
Documents relating to, say, the U.S.'s efforts to frustrate the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, or the Reagan administration's support for Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war, could prove instructive to the nation today.
"Almost any event that one reads about in the news today has precursors in our recent past," Aftergood said.
As more records are produced electronically, the National Archives must find a way to preserve them even as technology evolves. Ferriero said this might well be his greatest challenge.
For now, though, he remains awed by the near-daily encounters with history.
This week, he visited the military records archives in St. Louis. There, he saw the vault that contained the records of Gen. George Patton, baseball player Jackie Robinson and singer Elvis Presley. In the same vault, he found another document, his own personnel records from his service in the Navy.
So that, perhaps, is the national archivist's new favorite artifact.
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