By Jeffrey S. Reznick
David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States (AOTUS), recently honored the National Library of Medicine with a visit to share his expertise and discuss common challenges and opportunities facing archives today.
Mr. Ferriero oversees the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), “the nation’s record keeper” of an astonishingly diverse and vast collection of material dating from the earliest days of the United States to the present-day, including approximately 10 billion pages of textual records; 12 million maps, charts, and architectural and engineering drawings; 25 million still photographs and graphics; 24 million aerial photographs; 300,000 reels of motion picture film; 400,000 video and sound recordings; and 133 terabytes of electronic data that are part of NARA’s Electronic Records Archives. The work of NARA is vital because, as its website states clearly and convincingly:
In a democracy, records belong to the people, and for more than seven decades, NARA has preserved and provided access to the records of the United States of America. Records help us claim our rights and entitlements, hold our elected officials accountable for their actions, and document our history as a nation. In short, NARA ensures continuing access to the essential documentation of the rights of American citizens and the actions of their Government.
Mr. Ferriero spoke with NLM staff and leadership about the importance of making archives as accessible as possible for research, education, and general interest on the part of the public, as well as preserving these physical and electronic materials for the future. Mr. Ferriero’s visit with NLM senior staff offered an opportunity to discuss ideas and questions our institutions have in common as NARA enacts its new strategic plan and as the NLM is initiating development of its next long-range plan and inviting public feedback through its recently-launched Voyaging to the Future blog.
Among the topics discussed were change management and training, openness and access (particularly with regard to NARA’s recently-released Open Government plan), and use of social media to reach new wider and broader audiences. Since his confirmation by the U.S. Senate in November 2009, Mr. Ferriero has committed NARA to the principles of Open Government.
Mr. Ferriero ended his visit with a look at some of our own military and scientific archival collections. Rebecca Warlow, head of the NLM’s Images & Archives Section, showed him a range of materials carefully prepared by staff, including rare photographs from the period of the Spanish-American War and World War II-era Army and Navy Nurse Corps recruitment posters (Mr. Ferriero is a former Navy hospital corpsman who, forty-five years ago, was stationed at the National Naval Medical Center, which is today Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.) Ms. Warlow also showed Mr. Ferriero Marshall W. Nirenberg’s Genetic Code Chart, which is one of the first summaries of the genetic code, a painstaking, handwritten chart of the discovery of how sequences of DNA—known as “triplets”—direct the assembly of amino acids into the structural and functional proteins essential to life. Following this view of selected collections, Patricia Tuohy, head of the NLM’s Exhibition Program, offered Mr. Ferriero a tour of our current exhibition in the NLM History of Medicine Division reading room, From DNA to Beer: Harnessing Nature in Medicine and Industry, which explores some of the processes, problems, and potential inherent in technologies that use life.
“I’m just sorry that it took me more than 45 years to make it across the street to visit!” Mr. Ferriero said. “Stationed at the then National Naval Medical Center, I was certainly curious about NIH and NLM. I am always reassured when I talk with research library staff. We are all grappling with the same issues and all looking at what we do from our clientele’s perspective. How can we make it easy and seamless to connect them with the information they need? A special treat for me was taking a peak at some of the treasures in the collection. I was especially touched by the Navy medical materials—a very thoughtful gesture. “
We were very happy to host AOTUS and we hope to continue the great conversations started by this visit.