On Sunday morning at the ALA’s annual conference in New Orleans, Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress, and David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States held a jocular conversation, in which they ribbed each other over who controlled the more historically interesting collection and touched on challenges of running their respective organizations.

“The Archives includes everything the government produces,” explained Ferriero. “And the Library of Congress is everything they don’t,” said Hayden. Ferriero, then joked, “Sometimes, I wish I were you…,” which prompted Hayden to reply, “And sometimes I wish I were you.”

The pair then went on to one up each other in a “friendly historical competition.” Hayden pointed out that the Library of Congress had, for example, “four locks of Thomas Jefferson’s hair and the contents of Abraham Lincoln’s pockets when he was assassinated.” Ferriero countered that the Archives held not only the Declaration of Independence and “a little thing they call the U.S. Constitution,” but also “Hamilton’s oath of allegiance to George Washington signed at Valley Forge.”

Each then described several successful publicly facing programs. At the Archives, Ferriero brought in the idea of “sleepovers” for children, a program that he helped pioneer while head of the New York Public Library. “That is something we cannot compete with,” joked Hayden, “especially when I hear that when the kids wake up in the morning the National Archivist himself makes them pancakes.” Ferriero responded by saying that he could not compete with the Library of Congress’s ability to throw a party, noting a recent luncheon, and curators who can do things like transition from singing opera to jazz “in a single breath.”

Joking aside, each leader noted that technology poses the biggest challenge for each institution. “I always keep in mind Nicholson Baker’s [2001] book Double Fold, and his discussion of how much of the archive of the New York Herald Tribune was lost when it was converted to microfilm, which was a poor medium that disintegrated,” said Ferriero. “It was a flawed project,” he said, pointing out that as of 2022 all government records will be digital only, and 80% of the records today are born digital and have no paper antecedent. As for what format these records will be preserved in for future generations, “I think the answer lies in the cloud,” Ferriero said.

At the Library of Congress, Hayden said they had hired a new digital strategy manager to tackle ongoing issues of digitization. Meanwhile, the National Archives has a Wikipedian-in-residence, whose responsibility is to help seed Wikipedia entries with links to primary sources at the National Archives, and the institution holds routine Wikipedia edit-a-thons.

Hayden noted that another challenge for both institutions is a purely analog one. “We now have generations of children who don’t learn cursive,” she said, which means that many of them are unable to read or decipher cursive writing. Accordingly, both institutions have crowdsourced “citizen historians” and “citizen archivists” to assist with transcribing documents written in cursive, as well as take on tasks like identifying places and people in photographs.

Perhaps disappointing to audience members who packed the main theater at the convention center, the two largely avoided expressing their opinions on the practices of the current Trump administration. When an audience member raised a question about how the Archives were handling President Trump’s tweets, Ferriero said archivists got a lot of practice under President Obama, “who was himself a prolific tweeter,” and that the Archives were documenting both the accounts of @POTUS and @RealDonaldTrump. “Including the deleted tweets,” Ferriero added.

Asked by an audience member about the controversial efforts to move the Copyright Office from under the auspices of the Library of Congress and to turn the Register of Copyrights into a Presidential appointee, Hayden demurred.

“Copyright is less about where it lives,” she said, “than what it does.”

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