National Archivist Shows Treasures—From the Bill of Rights to Elvis Presley


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National Archivist David Ferriero presented a virtual tour of the National Archives collection—from weighty original documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, to more fanciful items, including a letter from Elvis Presley to President Nixon, and a childhood missive from Fidel Castro to President Roosevelt.

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David Ferriero, the archivist of the United States, speaks to an audience in Moore Hall’s Filene Theater on May 14. (photo by Corinne Arndt Girouard)

Ferriero, the 10th archivist of the United States, told an audience in Moore Hall’s Filene Auditorium about the archives’ collection of what he called “jaw-dropping things, things that you know from history happened but you don’t associate documentation (with).”

His May 14 presentation, part of the “Leading Voices in Higher Education” series, included slides of military discharge papers for Clark Gable, signed by his discharge officer, Capt. Ronald Reagan; a patent to Michael Jackson for anti-gravity shoes; and the original Louisiana Purchase treaty, signed by Napoleon Bonaparte. In this interview with Dartmouth Now, Ferriero discusses several of his favorite archive treasures.

In introducing Ferriero, the first librarian to hold the archivist’s post, Dartmouth Dean of Libraries Jeffrey Horrell said the archivist-in-chief has “opened up the National Archives in exciting and creative ways.”

The archives have 44 facilities around the country, including the 13 presidential libraries. Their collections are increased by about 500 million pages a year, and include records of anyone who ever worked in the federal government or served in the military. In April, the 1940 U.S. Census was added to the collection, and Internet access to the data crashed that same day as the site received 100 million hits.

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The National Archives include a letter from a 12-year-old Fidel Castro to President Roosevelt in 1940, asking Roosevelt to send a $10 bill. If the president would send the money, young Castro offered to show Roosevelt locations of ore deposits in Cuba, so the president could use the material for his fleet of ships. (courtesy National Archives)

Ferriero’s lecture was sponsored by the Friends of the Dartmouth College Library, the Howe Library in Hanover, N.H., Lebanon Public Libraries, the Norwich Public Library, the Norman Williams Library in Woodstock, Vt., and is part of Dartmouth’s strategic planning process.

The lecture series will resume in the fall term, with Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. A date has not yet been set for Hrabowski’s talk.

The “Leading Voices” series is part of Dartmouth’s strategic planning process, which began last summer. The process seeks to chart a “bold and aspirational path for Dartmouth’s future in anticipation of our 250th anniversary in 2019,” said Provost Carol Folt.

Susan J. Boutwell