The fate of history in the balance: The Seattle Federal Records Center still under threat

On February 16, John C. Coughenour, a Reagan-appointee and Senior Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, blocked the sale of the National Archives facility at Seattle, one of the Federal Records Centers (FRC) in the U.S. with a preliminary injunction. This ended the movement of records from the facility to FRCs in Missouri and California, many of which are “un-digitized records.” He called the situation a “public relations disaster” of the Public Buildings Reform Board (PBRB), the entity which proposed the sale, and said that the PBRB had “a stunning lack of appreciation of the issues” of indigenous people. While the attorney generals of Washington State and Oregon applauded the decision, as did indigenous people, genealogists, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, and others, the fight is not over. The Stranger said that history “requires defending in the present,” The Cut argued that the fate of the Seattle FRC “remains undecided,” and MyNorthwest noted there is “more potential trouble” in the future if noting about the facility changes going forward. On February 18, local Seattle leaders and the governor of Oregon both wrote President Biden, calling on him to stop the sale of the facility. Even with the injunction, it is short-lived, meaning that the facility remains under threat. As such, it is important to once again, as I noted in February and November of last year, to explain the negative impact the closure of this facility will have on those in the Pacific Northwest and in the U.S. as a whole.

Over the past year, there have been legal efforts to delay the closure. Kim Wyman, the Secretary of State of Washington State, began meeting with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and other stakeholders, in hopes of brokering a solution to keep the archival materials, which document “history across the Pacific Northwest” in the state of Washington. At the same time, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson made filings in federal court, including the recent lawsuit which included almost 600 pages from indigenous peoples, individuals, and interested groups which attest to the value of the Seattle facility and materials which are held there. If the “nearly million” boxes of archival materials from the facility were moved to Missouri and California as planned, access to records about Asian American history would be made more difficult, as would records that relate to the “cultural preservation, history and treaty rights” of various indigenous nations in the Pacific Northwest. Moving the records to facilities in those states would make them less publicly accessible, destroying one of the “wellsprings” from which the “collective memory” of the region and nation is formed, as argued in the case in the amicus brief by the Korematsu Center. A recent successful lawsuit filed by Ferguson in early January, joined by 29 indigenous groups, and historic community and preservation groups, to stop the relocation and sale of the Seattle FRC, explains the problem succinctly:

“This action shows a callous disregard for the people who have the greatest interest in being able to access these profoundly important records…The facility contains the DNA of our region. It provides public access to permanent records created by Federal agencies and courts in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington…the National Archives at Seattle is the only property among those the PBRB recommended for sale that has profound importance to the region in which it is situated and is regularly used by members of the public…These irreplaceable archives are primarily un-digitized and do not exist elsewhere.”

The closure of the facility would violate NARA’s own principles to preserve and provide access to U.S. records and document U.S. history, especially those documents essential to U.S. government actions, rights of U.S. citizens, and any other records which “provide information of value to citizens.” It also runs afoul of NARA’s commitment to drive “openness, cultivate public participation” and strengthen U.S. democracy through “public access to high-value government records.” That same commitment states that NARA will lead the “archival and information professions to ensure archives thrive in a digital world.” That seems unlikely since only about 1% of the NARA’s record holdings are digitized and even less than 1% of presidential library records have been put online.

Furthermore, moving the records from Seattle to the FRCs in California, whether in Riverside or in San Francisco, and St. Louis, Missouri, would disregard the core values of archivists outlined by the Society of American Archivists. These core values state that archivists have a duty to foster greater access and use to records, maintain records which allow “contemporary and future entities” to seek accountability, serve as responsible stewards for primary sources,” and root their “ethics of care that prioritizes sustainable practices and policies” when it comes to archival duties. The “boxes of information” within the Seattle FRC, highlighted by one local Seattle reporter, Matthew Smith, would be made less accessible if the records were moved elsewhere in the country. If the Seattle FRC is closed, it will be a sad day for archives, records, and preservation of U.S., indigenous, and community history.

Although the closure of the Seattle FRC has been halted by Judge Coughenour, this is only a temporary measure. In the short-term, you could contact the management team of NARA, especially chief archivist David Ferriero (david.ferriero@nara.gov), deputy chief archivist Debra Steidel Wall (debra.wall@nara.gov), and Chief Operating Officer William J. Bosanko (william.bosanko@nara.gov), and the PBRB at fastainfo@pbrb.gov, to express your opposition to the closure, while calling on President Biden to follow the judge’s decision and keep the facility open. In the long term, NARA needs increased funding and you can use the information put together by the Archival Researchers Association to contact your members of Congress to push for legislation which would increase the agency’s budget.

Reprinted from Issues & Advocacy. This was written before the sale of the facility was halted by the Biden Administration. After learning this, I said on Twitter, “that doesn’t mean it should be sold. The decision to sell tthee [sic] facility was rotten and it’s good it was stopped,” called for a bigger budget to NARA, and noted “it was good timing to write another article about this back in March. I personally wasn’t sure whether the sale would be cancelled [sic], but I am glad it was.”

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