REPOST — More than a warehouse: why the closure of Seattle’s National Archives facility matters

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. The following is from Burkely Hermann, recent graduate of the University of Maryland – College Park’s graduate program in Library and Information Science, with a concentration in Archives and Digital Curation.

On January 26, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) approved the sale of the 157,000 square foot National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) Seattle facility, which holds permanent federal records for Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. This decision raises the question: which is more important, access to historic records or selling a public facility in a high-value real estate market? There has been fierce opposition from historical societies in Alaska and Seattle, historical researchers, genealogical groups, indigenous leaders, university professors, archivists, and historians. They were joined by a bipartisan group of eight Alaskan state legislators and 16 Congress members. The latter, comprising Washingtonian, Alaskan, Idahoan, and Montanan politicians, was also bipartisan. Washington Governor Jay Inslee also opposed the decision, as did Washington’s Secretary of State Kim Wyman. Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson is considering suing the federal government over the closure. He reportedly submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the five-person Public Buildings Reform Board (PBRB), OMB, NARA, and the General Services Administration (GSA) regarding the closure. The Washington State Archives even created a page about the topic.

History Associates Incorporated, which cautioned their clients to plan ahead for the facility’s closure, noted the process would take 18 months. They also included the estimate from Susan Karren, NARA’s Seattle director that only “.001% of the facility’s 56,000 cubic feet of records are digitized and available online,” and stated that permanent records may be inaccessible when transferred between facilities. According to NARA, no actions are being taken imminently which affect users of the facility, and NARA has requested to stay in the facility for three years following the sale. With such hullabaloo on this topic, one question is relevant: why does this closure matter to us, as fellow archivists?

NARA’s Seattle facility in Sand Point is more than a “giant U.S. government warehouse” or “excess property” as described in bureaucratic language. This facility holds records on indigenous people in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. It also holds: Chinese Exclusion Act case files which have been diligently indexed by local volunteers for the past 28 years; Forest Service teletypes about the Mount St. Helens explosion in 1980; federal case records from the early 1900s; and other important local documents. Such records make the NARA facility part of the “historical ecosystem” in the Northwestern United States, providing the public “direct access to government documents, from genealogical records to court files.” These aspects make the facility a “high value” federal property (or “asset”) which has a “deferred maintenance backlog of $2.5 million.” Additionally, no public PBRB meeting transcripts showed discussion of the closure. In one meeting, “warehouse[s]” used by NARA for “long-term storage” was touched on and at another there was a passing mention of Seattle.

Some may point to existing digitization efforts. Sure, some of Alaska’s records have been digitized, but record series are often digitized by FamilySearch and the project is only five years old. For instance, some records relating to Alaska have been digitized like crew lists, immigrant lists, draft cards, and naturalization records, as is the case with Washington and Idaho. But these are primarily 20th century records, with very few 19th century records. The letter from congress members criticizing the decision also called this out, stating that “NARA’s partnership with FamilySearch to digitize records has…not resulted in actual access to records that have been prioritized by stakeholders,” a unique and rare criticism of the NARA-FamilySearch partnership. The limitations of existing digitization undermines NARA’s reasoning that some of their “popular records” are already digitized or available online, asserting that public access to their archival records will stay in place.

Access to “archived knowledge” is vital and inherent to archival ethics. Moving records away from those who can use it, dividing it between two existing facilities in Riverside, California, and Kansas City, Missouri, is an act of cruel inaccessibility. Furthermore, splitting the records between two locations, regardless of the reason, leads to a strain on those facilities, which need additional storage space. NARA itself admits that the closure will negatively affect those who use the facility. They pledge to engage with researchers in a “smooth” transition when the facility is shuttered, even though this change will undoubtedly disadvantage various stakeholders, whether state archivists, government employees, scientists, students, or others. In a recent invitation-only meeting, they showed their commitment to the closure of the facility, pledging to work with indigenous groups.

The PBRB’s executive director Adam Bodner claimed that the closure of the facility was a decision by NARA staff. If true, this would put them at odds with users and stakeholders who want the facility to remain open. On pages A-68 to A-71 of their report, the PBRB concluded that NARA wanted to move to a more modern facility and that the 10 acres the facility sat on would be great for residential housing, apparently worth tens of millions of dollars as one article claimed. The PBRB also stated that NARA could only fulfill its storage needs at another facility because the current facility does not meet NARA’s “long-term storage needs.” In the process, some records will be moved to a temporary facility. Reportedly, NARA justified the closure by the fact that the facility is the third-least visited NARA site in the country and has “high operating costs.” Such arguments don’t consider the fact that the 73-year-old building could be retrofitted for the agency’s needs or records could be moved closer rather than split between two locations. This closure also stands against NARA’s stated goal that public access is part of its core mission and violates the Society of American Archivists’ Code of Ethics, stating that archivists “promote and provide the widest accessibility of materials.”

In coming days, NARA will be submitting a Report of Excess to the GSA, headed by Administrator Emily Murphy, which will collaborate with the PBRB and OMB to help “offload” properties like this facility. As such, to speak out against the closure, you could email Emily Murphy at emily.murphy@gsa.gov, the GSA’s Deputy Administrator at Allison Brigati at allison.brigati@gsa.gov, call 1-844-GSA-4111 or contact the GSA’s Office of Real Property Utilization and Disposal at 202-501-0084 and at realestate.buildingdisposal@gsa.gov. Alternatively, you could contact the OMB’s Russell Vought at Russell.t.vought@omb.eop.gov or Archivist David Ferriero at David.Ferriero@nara.gov.


Note: This post is reprinted from Issues & Advocacy, as part of their “Archivists on the Issues” series. I wrote this article back on February 18 and am glad I did so. The situation has not changed as a result of COVID-19. Articles by the Seattle Times, Seattle Times again, and MyNorthwest, show that the closure seems to still be on the agenda, although discussions with the Congressional delegations and others with NARA continue in hopes of reaching an agreement.

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