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The Archivist of the United States to speak at Convocation

David Ferriero, event’s keynote speaker, discusses shelf serendipity, archiving in the digital age and MIT’s historic connections.
David Ferriero, the 10th Archivist of the United States
David Ferriero, the 10th Archivist of the United States

To any history buff, David Ferriero, the 10th Archivist of the United States, has an enviable position — literally. His office in the National Archives and Records Administration is steps away from the country’s most valuable documents, including the original Bill of Rights, the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. These Charters of Freedom each have long and storied histories, not only in their crafting, but in their preservation: the condition of each document is, in a way, evidence of the many efforts by archivists to safeguard its original form through the centuries.

Ferriero, who will be giving the keynote address at MIT’s Next Century Convocation this Sunday, says the Declaration of Independence in particular owes part of its integrity to William Barton Rogers, the founder of MIT.

In 1880, Rogers, who was then president of the National Academy of Sciences, was appointed by the Secretary of the Interior to head up a commission to determine a course of action to restore the Declaration of Independence. The original charter had become a crumbling manuscript, faded with age, the signatures of some founding fathers almost illegible. There was talk of re-inking: essentially tracing over faded areas to make the document more easily readable.

“If you look at the documentation the National Academy of Sciences had that they were looking at, there were wonderful sales pitches at the time, from ink distributors from Philadelphia, promising the quality of their ink to restore the Declaration,” Ferriero says.

However, Rogers and his committee refused to entertain such offers. “Rogers advised the Congress, ‘Don’t touch it. Use no chemical means to adjust or try to bring back the luster of the Declaration. It would ruin it,’” Ferriero says. “He was distrustful of any chemical means that would be used.”

Rogers perhaps was acting with the instinct of an archivist, who often works by the adage, “First, do no harm,” maintaining the original integrity of historical records and applying preservation techniques only if those techniques can be undone. The archivist and the MIT president may share another motto. When Rogers first conceived of MIT, he established its educational philosophy, mens et manus, Latin for “Mind and Hand,” embodied in the Institute’s seal: a laborer at the anvil, and a scholar with a book. The archivist could be said to work by a similar duality, making use of tools and organizational ideas to preserve and archive historical records.

Ferriero will touch on the MIT motto in his speech on Sunday, and on how the theme has woven its way through MIT’s many achievements since Rogers founded the Institute 150 years ago. Ferriero himself has had a significant role in MIT’s history: he worked for 31 years in the MIT Libraries, first as a co-op student in 1966, shelving books in the library stacks, later as associate director for public services.

In fact, he says one of the pinnacles of his career at MIT involved assembling Rogers’ personal library in celebration of the MIT Alumni Association’s centennial in 1975.

“We were working from a crude inventory in his hand, and going shelf by shelf opening books,” Ferriero says. “We found about a thousand titles from his collection, and that was one of the high points for me — getting a sense of what this guy was reading that might have influenced him.”

As for what those seminal works might be, Ferriero is keeping them, much like fragile, priceless documents, under close wraps, waiting to unveil some titles, and perhaps some valuable insight into MIT, at Convocation this Sunday.

Ferriero also says that in his three decades at MIT, he saw evidence of the Institute’s motto at work in the library stacks. He points to the work of physicist Philip Morse as particularly influential. Morse, who founded MIT’s Operations Research Center in 1953, was considered the father of operations research theory, a field that uses mathematical modeling to evaluate complex, multi-variable systems. Perhaps his most dramatic achievement occurred during World War II: determining the positions of German U-boats, significantly increasing the effectiveness of Allied air strikes against them.

Ferriero says Morse’s mathematical models also benefited the MIT libraries. In the 1960s and ‘70s, Morse developed algorithms to determine the shelving of certain sections of books. By looking at factors like a book’s subject area, its yearly circulation, and the size of its section, Morse determined which were more likely to be of higher interest to an average browser, and which books might be “retired,” or shelved in a lower-traffic area of the library. The idea was to enhance a library patron’s browsing experience, creating library sections of high interest that might efficiently increase the chance of a serendipitous find.

“The concept of serendipity on library shelves was one of my favorite works of his,” Ferriero says. “You walk in looking for a specific item, but your eyes are drawn to items shelved near it and you discover things that you wouldn’t normally be thinking about. That [concept] has stood the test of time, even in this electronic culture.”

Today, as the pre-eminent archivist in the country, Ferriero oversees the nation’s vast and fast-growing historical record, encompassing at last count 10 billion physical pages and 100 terabytes of electronic documents. Digitizing the former and organizing the latter are the main challenges for today’s archivists.

For Ferriero, an exciting development in the field is the archiving of original electronic content. More and more historical records are created digitally, and figuring out ways to create, store and access these files is a big concern in today’s major libraries. For example, the National Archives is currently building an electronic archive for the 240 million e-mail messages from the White House during the George W. Bush administration.

“There’s nostalgia for paper in some cases, but I predict we’ll get there with electronic content as well,” Ferriero says. “For instance, we’re responsible for 100,000 documents for the Elena Kagan confirmation hearing, and about 65,000 e-mail messages. That was firsthand experience for electronic-only content, and looking at it for me had the same impact as looking at early paper documents.”

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