Making a trip to a National Archives Center is something that many more people should do. While the National Archives Center in Washington D.C. possesses the Nation’s most precious documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, most people do not know that they preserve much more than that. Moreover, most people do not realize that there often is a National Archives Center in their region that they can arrange to visit. I chose to visit the National Archives Center in Seattle. The regional archives are used to conduct research, and interact with our Federal Records to conduct a wide array of research from Congressional Records, to regional departmental records (such as Bureau of Indian Affairs records), to genealogy and census research, and more.
So for the assignment evaluating the space, some of the issues I wished to explore were, the infrastructure, the functionality of the space, the access and use of materials stored; or in other words, how might the average user perceive the space. Lastly, I wanted to examine the strategic plan for the archives to see what is planned and how will the archives be accessed and used in the future.
Upon arriving at the National Archives in Seattle, many visitors may feel that perhaps they do not have the right location or might feel intimidated. The Seattle archival center is a large gray complex surrounded by barbed wire fencing. There is a National Archives and Records Administration sign out front but very little directing the public on where to go. Upon entering the space, one is immediately struck at how little is invested into the infrastructure of the National Archives. The visitor must also figure out to go to the left and not up the stairs or off to the right. Upon entering the archives, the visitor has to check in with the receptionist. Fill out research request forms and then get a locker to store any items not allowed in the research room such as bags, coats, pens, etc. The visitor again has to sign in when entering the research room.
At this point the archivist brings out a cart from a securely locked collections area with whatever records the user requested. Within the research room there is always staff present to safeguard records and ensure some basic handling practices are being performed. Researchers are only allowed one box on the table at a time to ensure that records remain intact and may only pull one file per time to ensure proper record sequence is maintained. While the Seattle archives has records dating to the 1850’s, in my time at the archives researching historical records from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, some dating to the early 1900’s, one irk I did not see was that gloves were not required to handle older or newer documents.
As the Nation’s record keeper, it is imperative that the National Archives keeps records secure and safe. Given the steps one must take to have records pulled and the research policies and having to research in the research room where there is staff present to assist in any research needs and ensure security, the National Archives still does an amazing job in ensuring proper handling from the public and protecting archival records.
As Scott McLemee pointed out in the article on the New York Public Library, the big push is for computers and online access right now. While New York Public Library’s decision to move stacks off-site is an extreme solution to infrastructure and the digital age, the National Archives is also wrestling with infrastructure and digital needs. The National Archives however must contend with an enormous amount of precipitously growing amount of information, some of which is in digital form. The National Archives Strategic Plan calls for 1 percent of archival holdings to be available online by the end of this year. The National Archives also is calling for 95 percent of archival holdings to be described in an online catalog by 2016.
Throughout my visit to the National Archives, with this assignment in mind, several thoughts came to mind. Given the National Archives and Records Administration’s push for digitization and providing greater access to records, one has to wonder whether investment in infrastructure is perhaps being sacrificed in this push. Also, the National Archives, in large part due to the recession and now with Republican calls to slash budgets of domestic programs, have suffered tremendously with their budget. It is really quite remarkable how much the National Archives is able to provide to the public with the budget and infrastructure issues that they have, imagine how well they would do with a budget they deserve as our Nation’s Record Keepers.
In reexamining the issues that I wanted to explore, the National Archives in Seattle is an old and antiquated building that can be intimidating to a new user. Regional archives must wait their turn for a limited national budget for archival centers with a majority of the focus going towards renovating presidential libraries and the main National Archives building in Washington D.C. It is clear that the major focus for the National Archives is to expand access through the digital domain. The Seattle archives then continues to utilize its scarce resources to provide the best access possible given their resources.
National Archives Strategic Plan. Retreived from http://www.archives.gov/about/plans-reports/strategic-plan/
McLemee, S. (2012). For Books, Against Boiler Plate. Retreived from http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2012/04/25/second-column-new-york-public-library-research-collection#.T54jNH_sJhE.twitter