REPOST–“Far-reaching impacts”: Why the closure of NARA’s Seattle facility still 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.

Back on February 18, I wrote about the closure of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)’s Seattle facility, NAS for short. Recently this issue came to the fore with the publication of an article by Megan E. Llewellyn and Sarah A. Buchanan titled “Will the Last Archivist in Seattle Please Turn Out the Lights: Value and the National Archives” in the Journal of Western Archives.

The NAS facility is key to many different communities. The official page for the facility specifically highlights information they hold about Chinese immigrants and indigenous affairs, along with land records, court records, and genealogical resources. This includes tribal and treaty records of indigenous people living in the Pacific Northwest, and original case files for Chinese immigrants in the 19th century. Volunteers have been trying to index the Chinese immigrant files and create an “extensive database of family history.” This will be interrupted if the files are moved, making the database incomplete.

The NAS facility itself has regional significance. The property the facility sits on was once the location of a prospering farm owned by Japanese immigrant Uyeji family from 1910 to 1942. [1] These immigrants were evicted from their land during World War II and put into concentration camps, like the over 120,000 Japanese Americans. The immigrant Uyeji family never returned to their home, and the land was seized by the U.S. Navy in 1945, after it had been condemned in earlier years, in order to build a warehouse. [2] The warehouse was later converted into a facility and began to be occupied by the National Archives after 1963. This transfer of ownership intersected with the history of Seattle’s development which benefited White people above those of other races, from 1923 onward.

There is more to be considered. As Llewellyn and Buchanan argue in the Journal of Western Archives, the closure of NAS is harmful, a failure at “multiple levels of government,” and was made without considering how valuable marginalized communities in the area see the records held at the facility. [3] 58,000 cubic feet are permanent records of federal agencies in the Pacific Northwest, while 6,600 cubic feet are occupied by records from the Bureau of Indian Affairs alone. [4] Neither should be destroyed per NARA guidance. This amount of cubic feet is equivalent to about 1,871 side-by-side refrigerators or about 1,234 top-mount refrigerators. [5] No matter how the size is measured, the NAS facility is well-used, as is its digital resources, by Asian-Americans, indigenous people, and various researchers. [6] Some indigenous people even called the closure and movement of records to other locations a “paper genocide.” As Bob Ferguson, the Washington State Attorney General, stated in February, moving the records from the NAS facility to states such as California and Missouri, contradicts the purpose of the archives and impedes efforts by local families to research their ancestors.

There are other problems with the closure. Llewellyn and Buchanan pointed out, for one, the errors in the Public Buildings Reform Board (PBRB)’s assessment to close the facility, noting the significant level of foot traffic, the lack of public hearings on the closure, and NARA management agreeing with the decision to close. [7] There is also concern that not all the records held at the NAS facility could be digitized. Some news outlets, like MyNorthwest, have rightly pointed out that large items like bound books and maps might not be “properly scanned” or digitized at all. Llewellyn and Buchanan further note the involved process of digitization, and extra costs researchers will have to pay if the records from the NAS facility are moved. [8]

Readers may be asking what can be done about the closure. Now is not the time to sit back and let the Washington State government do the heavy lifting, nor the Seattle media. In the latter case, the Seattle Times opined against the decision to close the NAS facility. In the case of Washington State, Ferguson, mentioned earlier, proposed a compromise to keep the regional facility of NARA in Washington State, worrying, like others, of the prospect of losing access to “over a century of history.” But his noble efforts have been for naught. The closure is on track, with NARA justifying it based on experience with the COVID-19 pandemic, saying the agency will be “less location dependent” in the future, with users accessing resources remotely rather than in-person. On the legal front, in August, Ferguson filed federal Freedom of Information Act lawsuits for public records against NARA, the Office of Management & Budget (OMB), and the General Services Administration (GSA). He also requested documents from the PBRB the same month. He stated that NARA and OMB failed to respond to requests he made in early February, while the GSA has not sent records it promised in the summer of this year. The PBRB, on the other hand, wanted taxpayers to pay about $65,000 to redact information from documents even though no sensitive information is present, as stated in various articles in the Seattle Times, HeraldNet, and Seattle Weekly. These efforts will likely go forward as Ferguson won the race to be the Attorney General of Washington State against Republican challenger Matt Larkin.

In the short-term, readers should email the OMB Director Russell Vought at Russell.t.vought@omb.eop.gov, the GSA Administrator Emily Murphy at emily.murphy@gsa.gov, Archivist David Ferriero at David.Ferriero@nara.gov, and the PBRB at fastainfo@pbrb.gov, opposing the closure of the NAS facility. Currently, the NAS facility has not been listed by the GSA for sale, whether on its database of real property or its database displaying federal properties being auctioned off. While COVID-19 makes the push for more remote learning attractive, it is still possible and vital to open in-person facilities, in line with existing rules and regulations to ensure the safety of the staff and patrons at specific facilities. In the long-term, if the NAS facility is closed, it could put other NARA facilities in jeopardy, as Llewellyn and Buchanan point out. [9] At the same time, archivists should advocate for a “massive investment in time, money, and planning” to digitize more of NARA’s holdings, as the aforementioned scholars argue for, [10] with not even 1% digitized at the present! Whether the facility is closed or not, there are dark times ahead for NARA, as less government spending may be on the horizon, unless the proposed budget for NARA is approved by the House of Representatives and Senate.


Notes

[1] Llewellyn, Megan E., and Sarah A. Buchanan, “Will the Last Archivist in Seattle Please Turn Out the Lights: Value and the National Archives and the National Archives,” Journal of Western Archives 11, no. 1 (October 12, 2020): 7, https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1125&context=westernarchives.

[2] Llewellyn and Buchanan, 7-9.

[3] Ibid, 3-4.

[4] Ibid, 4-5.

[5] Karie Lapham Fay, “Dimensions of a Standard Size Refrigerator,” SFGate, December 17, 2018, https://homeguides.sfgate.com/dimensions-standard-size-refrigerator-82262.html. I used the largest size of a side-by-side refrigerator (31 cubic feet) and the largest size of a top-mount refrigerator is 47 cubic feet when using the highest numbers in Fay’s article.

[6] Llewellyn and Buchanan,  5-6.

[7] Ibid, 11-17.

[8] Ibid, 17-19.

[9] Ibid, 24-25.

[10] Ibid, 21.

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