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.”

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.

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.