National archives -- safe at home(s)
Scholars, historians, genealogist, and other researchers need not be fearful that the destruction of the National Archives is near, as some have reported and others have proclaimed.
There is no proposal under consideration at the General Services Administration, nor has there been nor is it anticipated that there will be, for a "decentralization of the National Archives" that would disperse the core holdings of the institution in a destructive way.
A program of transferring selected regionally oriented records to archival centers around the country -- begun more than 10 years ago -- will continue in a sensible, orderly manner that has already proven so successful. No changes will be made that wuld have a detrimental impact on this program. In addition to making the documents of our rich heritage available to more people, it is hoped it will relieve to some degree the critical problem we have of archival storage space in the national capital area.
A storm of controversy and concern has developed around this program in recent weeks, perhaps deliberately, mainly because my interest in the program has been poorly communicated. Part of that controversy was a meeting during the past few days of some 200 mid-level managers and employees of GSA's National Archives and Records Service (NARS), a group calling themselves the National Archives Concerned Professionals. The organization approved a resolution to be transmitted to the President of the United States. It called for a delay in the regionalization program and formation of a commission to study the feasibility of reestablishing an independent National Archives.
The proponents of this resolution may be surprised to learn that I have no basic disagreement with them. I had already directed a temporary halt to the transfer of records to regional centers until I perceived my views on the matter were properly understood and until we could confer at some length with the user community to ensure agreement as to how the records might be kept. When I asked several months ago for a plan to make parts of this rich heritage available in regional centers, I was delighted that such a program to regionalize archival holdings had been underway since 1969 under that I consider to be sensible guidelines. The 11 archives branches now hold original records, principally of regional research interest -- such as field activities of federal agencies -- as well as microfilm copies of some of the most important or frequently used holdings in the National Archives. Well used by researchers, these branch holdings have been augmented from time to time by similar records of regional interest and are now fixtures in the federal archival system.
This program will continue. But users may be assured that there will be no fragmentation of the records that constitute the core of the National Archives. Recommendations of records to be transferred to regional centers would come from the Archivist of the United States after consultation with the user community.
Further means to be used to preserve and increase accessibility to the documents that trace our nation's history surely include duplication of records in microfilm or microfiche. Plans are being explored to develop a National Archives and Manuscript Information System in cooperation with other major archival and library institutions. Such a computerized indexing system would be valuable to researchers, and the public as well, in determining the full extent of the holdings of these institutions and facilitate access through inter-library loans.
I have set no goals or deadlines for this program in the way of dates, or volumes of records, nor have I personally decided that any particular records are to be dispersed. I reiterate that these decisions will be made by archivists. Any examples I have used were based on recommendations made by archivists.
The shortage of space in the Washington area is of concern to me and the expense of further construction is a problem in a time of budget constraints and taxpayer concern.
As to the question of separating the N ational Archives from GSA: I have no preconceived view of the disposition of this issue. This question has not been seriously considered since 1967, and it may be appropriate to do so now.
A final matter of utmost importance is the selection of a person of considerable statre for the position of Archivist of the United States (vacated in August by the retirement of Dr. James B. Rhoads). My position all along has been that we will select a person experienced as an archivist, historian, or scholar. I have added another criterion -- that the person be a capable manager , competent to administer the $80 million budget of NARS, its 4,200 employees here and in the 11 regional centers and six presidential libraries. There is no imcompatibility in these requirements. Recent studies by the General Accounting Office and GSA's Inspector General indicate disarray in the management of NARS, a problem I am committed to solve.