At the bottom of what became known as the Lee Declaration are 12 hash marks in the "aye" column, one for each colony declaring its independence (New York would sign on later). The date is July 2, 1776.Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.
"So why don't we celebrate on the 2nd?" Ferriero asks vault manager Jane Fitzgerald as she gingerly handles the nation's first declaration of independence. Because the final declaration, she said, wouldn't be printed until two days later.
John Adams may have predicted that July 2 would "be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more," but the archivist of the United States will have to wait two days to hang out with Thomas Jefferson on the Mall and ride in his agency's first-ever Fourth of July parade float.
"Things that you've grown up learning about, there's actually documentation that proves that it actually happened," marveled Ferriero, confirmed as the nation's "collector in chief" in November. "That they have been preserved all these years is absolutely amazing."
A former head of the New York Public Libraries, the nation's largest public library system, Ferriero now presides over an even bigger domain: 44 facilities across the country that include 13 presidential libraries, a huge military records center near St. Louis and, of course, the charters of freedom here.
As head of the National Archives and Records Administration, Ferriero is responsible for the safekeeping of 10 billion paper records, 4 billion digital records, 300,000 reels of motion-picture film, 200,000 sound and video recordings, 30 million photographs, 2.7 million maps and charts, and 3.5 million architectural drawings and engineering plans.
"It's an awesome responsibility," said Ferriero, 64, "but also very exciting."
Ferriero recently oversaw the release of 170,000 pages related to Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, who served in the Clinton White House. It took 16 archivists, six archival technicians and a supervisor working more than 6,000 hours, seven days a week, at the Clinton Presidential Library to process the records in time for this week's confirmation hearings.
Many of the Kagan records, like so many today, were e-mails. Although less than 3 percent of government documents have traditionally been deemed important enough to keep permanently, the advent of electronic records has produced a tsunami of data that has made collection and curation in some ways more difficult than in dead-tree days. And much of it, both paper and electronic, has been secret. Until now.
Soon after Ferriero moved into his office here, President Barack Obama issued an executive order that 400 million pages of secret documents be declassified as part of his administration's effort to increase transparency and open government. He called for a new National Declassification Center within the archives to coordinate a governmentwide review of records, many of them relating to military operations during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
The goal, as Ferriero wrote on his blog, is "to get as many of these documents as possible on the open shelves -- as quickly as possible -- for researchers, journalists, historians, government officials and the public" by the end of 2013.
Ferriero expects the first batch of declassified documents to be released later this year. In the meantime, the National Archives will announce two initiatives later this month to streamline and make easier public access to government records:
- Electronic Records Archives. The government's digital vault is about to go online for the first time in a search-friendly format that will allow the public to more easily find and order copies of electronic records stored in the system.
- Federal Register. The daily compendium of government rules and regulations and general goings-on will soon be searchable online. While the routine doings of government may make for dry reading, a new comments section that allows the public to weigh in on legislation as it's being hashed out should make for lively give-and-take. Ferriero said federal agencies will monitor the comments, but he was unsure what the rules of posting would be.
"It's your opportunity to learn what your government is doing, how your tax dollars are being spent and your opportunity to influence that," he said. "That's what this is all about. The way we encourage that is making it readable, in English, highly graphical, with lots of uses of technology to make it interactive."
Ferriero, the first national archivist to tweet and give updates on Facebook, hopes to have an iPad app next. But while he wishes he had thought about tweeting the Declaration of Independence as Slate has lately, old-fashioned parchment and paper still excite him as he prepares to oversee his agency's biggest day of the year.
Like a kid in a candy store, Ferriero looks on as Fitzgerald and archivist Trevor Plante pull out acid-free folders containing one irreplaceable colonial document after another.
There's the deposition of Capt. John Parker on how the Battle of
"My entire life as a librarian I've had access to great collections," said Ferriero, once head of libraries at MIT and Duke University, "but it's hard to top the charters of freedom."