Losing Our Memory/A Century Ago
These, of course, are not new questions. A century ago, the American Historical Association was advocating with the Congress and President Roosevelt—Teddy Roosevelt—for the creation of a National Archives and a National Historical Publications Commission. The AHA had been focused on federal government records since its founding in 1884, and for decades, the association and in particular J. Franklin Jameson, who at the time was with Department of History and Political Science at Johns Hopkins, badgered and cajoled and argued for some system and order to be created to preserve federal records and make them accessible to the citizenry.
Jameson wasn’t the first advocate, though perhaps, he was the most ardent. The history of the idea of a national archives is as old as the nation itself.
When the Constitutional Convention of 1787 had completed its work, delegate Rufus King of Massachusetts suggested that the Journals of the Convention be either destroyed or deposited in the custody of the President. He thought "if suffered to be made public, a bad use would be made of them by those who wish to prevent the adoption of the Constitution." The Convention voted to entrust the records to George Washington with instructions that he retain them "subject to the order of Congress, if that body was ever formed."
In 1796, Washington turned them over to the new Department of State. The exceptions, of course, were the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, which were sent to the Congress in session in New York. It was not until 1800, when the seat of government moved to Washington, DC, that those charters joined the other records at the Department of State.
In 1810, Josiah Quincy of Massachusetts, recognizing the risk associated with the growing volume of documents of the government scattered around the city, told the House of Representatives that "the public records of the country were in such a situation as was disgraceful to the House and to the Nation."
Not only were they in disorder, and in a state of decay, but all the records of the Revolutionary War lay under the eaves of the building in a condition extremely unsafe, and daily exposed to destruction by fire." In fact during the fire of 1801, files of the War and Treasury Departments were destroyed and President John Adams himself joined the bucket brigade to quench the flames.
In true government tradition, a committee was formed and a study conducted and a bill with a $20,000 appropriation was signed by President [James] Madison to construct "as many fireproof rooms" as were necessary to house the archives of the Government. Before the law could be enacted, the British army invaded with instructions to burn the city. Clerks in the State Department working through the night packed the records of the government into linen sacks and loaded them onto creaking carts to be carried off into the hills of Virginia. The next morning, August 25, 1814, the Capital and other public buildings were in ashes. When the British left Washington, the records were returned to their former home and languished for another century.
From that point till just after the Civil War, federal records were still relatively under control. Some 108,000 cubic feet were in storage within various federal agencies in 1861, but that number grew to 1 million cubic feet by 1916. Just to give you a rough idea, there may be between 2,000 and 2,500 pages of material in a cubic foot. So as early as World War I, the federal government had some 2 billion pages under the control of several agencies. The call for centralization through a National Archives persisted.
In 1926, Congress finally acted and authorized the construction of the building, which began in September of 1931. President Herbert Hoover laid the cornerstone in February of 1933, though there was not yet an actual agency to be put in the building. It was not till the following June that Congress passed and President Franklin Roosevelt signed the "Act to Establish a National Archives of the United States Government."
The Act generally gave the National Archives the scope and authority to preserve the records of the federal government, to "make regulations for arrangement, custody, use, and withdrawal," to acquire and preserve motion pictures and sound recordings, and to publish and make available historical works and collections of sources.
At the same time, however, nothing of this sort had ever been done in the United States, leaving the new staff at the archives unfettered in devising systems and means to bring the information and material under control. These must have been high times at the agency, times of tremendous freedom and opportunity.
The head of the enterprise was Robert Digges Wimberly Connor, the first Archivist of the United States. Dr. Connor was a native of Wilson, North Carolina, a graduate of, and history faculty member at, the University of North Carolina. And I'd like to think that if Duke had been founded when Mr. Connor was going to school, he would have opted for Duke.
Connor had commissioned a study of the state of the government’s records during the two years before construction was complete. Describing the situation from the perspective of the researcher he writes:
- "conditions make it impossible for officials to find adequate room for both their files and their staffs. Few facilities can be furnished the student and his presence is tolerated rather than encouraged by staffs already sufficiently burdened with the routine duties of the day. He finds the records he desires to use scattered throughout the country, stored wherever space can be found for them, in cellars and sub-cellars, under terraces and over boiler-rooms, in attics and corridors, piled in dumps on floors and packed into alcoves, abandoned carbarns, storage warehouses, deserted theaters, or ancient but more humble edifices that should long ago have served their last useful purpose. Typical is the case of valuable records relating to Indian Affairs which were found in a depository in Washington piled on dust-covered shelves mingled higgledy-piggledy with empty whisky bottles and with rags and other highly inflammable trash. In another Washington depository packed with documents the most prominent object which meets the eye as one enters the room is the skull of a cat protruding from under a pile of valuable records. I think it is a fair question that if a cat with nine lives to risk in the cause of history could not survive the conditions of research in the depositories of government records, can we justly blame the poor scholar who has only one life to give for his country if he refuses to take the risk?".
Connor and his colleagues created systems for records management, accessioning and processing, preserving, and encouraging use. They cleaned out the whiskey bottles and put out the cat. They brought order to the chaos, just as the storm of records grew into a tempest.
As early as December 1935, records began to arrive at the Archives building, and by June 1941, over 300,000 cubic feet were on file. Eight years later, the space in the building was exhausted, and by the mid 1940s, one million cubic feet of Federal records were being created each year. "It is almost inconceivable," U.S. Archivist Wayne Grover observed in 1953, "that the federal government, in the 22 years from 1930 to 1952, should have created more than seven times as many records as it did during its previous 155 years of history.
You ain’t seen nothing yet, baby. The numbers are even more daunting today. As you know, the National Archives keeps only those Federal records that are judged to have continuing value—about 2 to 5 percent of those generated in any given year. By now, they add up to a formidable number, diverse in form as well as in content. There are approximately 9 billion pages of textual records; 7.2 million maps, charts, and architectural drawings; more than 20 million still photographs; billions of machine-readable data sets; and more than 365,000 reels of film and 110,000 videotapes.
We outgrew the building in Washington, DC, long ago and now have a second Archives that’s also filling up, records centers across the country, 13 Presidential Libraries, and underground centers—all filled with historical records that have been saved. Tangible stuff. Before I get to the challenges of electronic records, I’d like to say a few words about the lessons we can learn from dealing with this sea of paper.
|This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).|