Monday, March 19, 2007

National Archives

I haven't visited the National Archives in years, but I do remember my visit fondly--attentive staff and a wealth of resources. I learned today in an op-ed piece in the New York Times that the Archives hasn't had a budget increase in years, and as a result, it has had to hire less-qualified staff to organize records. This is making it harder for members of the public to find what they need. In addition, "more than a million cubic feet of documents...need to be organized, described and filed." The Archivist of the United States, Allen Weinstein, a long-ago college professor of mine, calls this situation a "document surplus," not a "backlog," but it amounts to the same thing--the material is not being processed and is inaccessible. It is taking longer for achivists to answer written requests for information, and off-peak hours have been cut, making the Archives more difficult to use for many individuals. As the author of the piece, David Kahn, concludes, "the National Archives does more than display the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. From its astonishing riches emerge not only the records of one's immigrant grandparents but the documents and images that produce books and telecasts about this country. Without the services of the archives, the nation risks amnesia and loses direction." Kahn urges President Bush to ask Congress to increase the budget of the National Archives, and urges Congress to grant this funding request.


Betsy McKenzie said...

Thank you, Marie, for this post! Long ago, when I was a library student, I served an internship in the government documents and map dept at the University of KY. I was told then how important it is for librarians to speak up about access and resources. Our patrons don't know that they will be wanting these materials, whether they are archives or govt. documents, or library materials generally. Even library space can be a commodity that looks grabbable for other uses; the faculty and students can't see that next year or the next they'll wish they had that [space, book, document, item] available. (can you tell we are having space planning woes here?)

Marie S. Newman said...

Thanks, Betsy, for your insightful response. We are just finishing up a big renovation project, and we have had to fight many attempts to encroach on library space.

Mary L. Dudziak said...

FYI, I expanded on Kahn's op-ed over at the Legal History Blog today: (where I often link to OOTJ's excellent posts!).

The post end this way:

Those magic finds in an archive that can lead to new turns in historical scholarship result not just from the dedicated slogging through the records that characterizes serious historical research. It results from the relationship between the historian and the archivist....Undermining the role of the archivist in the production of American history writing will undermine the way the story of American history itself is told.

Betsy McKenzie said...

Bravo, Mary! I believe the same is true of librarians and our patrons. A lot of important research gems, you come across by sheer serendipity. The ability to browse, and assistance of a knowledgeable guide are key for this sort of find. Often, you don't know that something is out there, and until you stumble on it, or are guided there, you don't know you need it!