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Cuts At The National Archives: Why Does It Matter?

March 27, 2007

With the just posted announcement about Loyola’s new center, I feel obligated to excerpt from this New York Times Op-Ed, by David Kahn, about the National Archives. The news at the latter is not as positive. Here goes:

– “Everybody knows how to use a library. . . . It’s different with an archive, where unpublished memorandums, reports, notes and letters are organized not by topic but by the agency that created them. You have to know which agency did the work you are interested in, and whether more than one was involved. The complexity of government means first-time archive users need help.”
– “Alone among the world’s great archives, the National Archives of the United States has offered such assistance to visitors. At Britain’s Public Record Office, for instance, a courteous official points to rows of volumes listing the contents of files for the Admiralty, the Foreign Office, Scotland Yard. After that, you’re on your own. It is much the same at France’s Archives Nationales and Germany’s Bundesarchiv.”
– “That precious advantage is being lost. . . . More than a million cubic feet of documents, nearly enough to fill the Washington Monument, need to be organized, described and filed. This ‘document surplus’ — a term the archivist of the United States, Allen Weinstein, prefers to ‘backlog’ — was caused in part by the wait for a new archives building and by a new emphasis on electronic records. But mainly, with no increase in its budget in years, it comes down to a lack of money.”
– “As a result, the [National Archives] have hired less-experienced personnel to organize the records, often resulting in people having to hunt longer for what they need. And although 50 professionals have recently been moved to processing, that has left only 22 archivists to deal with the public — and with records they do not know well.”
– “Written requests for information should be answered in 10 working days, something the archives once did 95 percent of the time; this year it is 75 percent. In the military and civil branch the backlog of unanswered letters used to be 15 to 30; now it is 115 to 130. The financial squeeze has also cut off-peak hours to two nights and one Saturday each month, making research difficult for visitors from afar, and for anyone who works a 9 to 5 job.”
– “Why does this matter? Because the National Archives does more than display the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. From its astonishing riches emerge not only the records of one’s immigrant grandparents but the documents and images that produce books and telecasts about this country. Without the services of the archives, the nation risks amnesia and loses direction. The president should ask for the few millions the archives needs to do its job right, and Congress should appropriate it.”

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Our treatment of the National Archives is indicative of a general tone across the nation. A while back I posted on the digitization of primary resources, and how that process costs a lot of money. Those primary resources – newspapers, letters, journals, pictures, and film – are located in large and small archives around the nation. All people think about today, however – including a large, lamentable number of historians – is how we can transfer all those materials to web. No one wants to think about the care and maintenance of the original materials.

Here’s me getting on my soapbox, and here’s me holding up a megaphone. Are you ready? Here goes:

The digitization of primary resources does NOT mean we can be rid of archives, or let the funds for archives decline! A certain baseline of funding will be required to maintain our primary historical documents whether or not ANY or ALL of those materials are eventually transferred to the internet! That means that EVERY dime spent on digitization is ADDITIVE!

Okay, now I’m lowering the megaphone and stepping off my soapbox. Thanks for listening. – TL

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