Archivists Challenge DC Mayor to Fund Municipal Archives Cleanup
A recent article in the Washington Post entitled “City’s Records Center Compiles a History of Neglect” (Sewell Chan, December 4, 2003) highlighted the deplorable condition of the Washington, DC, Municipal Archives.
SAA President Tim Ericson expressed the archival community’s concern in a letter to the editor published on December 18.
SAA also cooperated with the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC), the Midwest Archives Conference (MAC), and the Northwest Archivists, Inc. (NWA) in contacting DC Mayor Anthony Williams to urge that the Archives receive the support and funding it needs to fulfill its mission.
SAA President Tim Ericson's letter to the editor (Washington Post, December 18, 2003; Page DZ04):
Preserving Public Records
Sewell Chan's excellent article on the deplorable conditions at the Washington Archives ["Endangered Archives," District Extra, Dec. 4] describes a condition that is all too frequently the norm in archival programs across the country.
Lack of support for the facility represents a false economy. If the District government thinks it is saving money by providing a low level of support to the archival program, it should think again about the $250,000 it is paying for off-site storage.
When archivists finally are able to evaluate the 112,000 boxes from D.C. General Hospital and the Lorton Correctional Facility that are now in storage, they probably will find that more than half of those records have no historical value and can be discarded. The District government will have been using taxpayer dollars to store recycling fodder.
In the same way, stripping the archives program of the staff needed to create "finding aids" will mean that city employees who need to reference truly valuable records will be spending more time—and taxpayer dollars—to locate that information. District offices will remain cluttered with worthless records that could be discarded once they have been evaluated.
For every year that the original wills and other significant historical documents entrusted to the District are allowed to remain in substandard storage facilities, the resulting deterioration will add to the eventual cost of restoring and preserving them.
There are many options available to assist the District government in the work of maintaining an archives facility that serves its citizens, including applying for grant funding. Ultimately the mayor and other District government officials must take responsibility for one of their most important and fundamental obligations: preserving, and providing access to, public records that document the rights and privileges of the people who live in our nation's capital.
Timothy L. Ericson, President
December 10, 2003
Honorable Anthony Williams
Dear Mayor Williams:
I am writing to express the concern of the Society of American Archivists regarding the plight of the valuable historic records and archives of the District of Columbia, as described in the December 4, 2003, Washington Post article, “City’s Records Center Compiles a History of Neglect,” written by Sewell Chan. This article deeply troubles me both professionally and personally. The lack of funding for the efforts of Clarence Davis and the staff of the DC archives places irreplaceable documents at risk of loss or destruction. These include both historical records—such as original wills of Dolley Madison, Francis Scott Key, Frederick Douglass, Woodrow Wilson, and other notable Americans—and essential records protecting the rights and privileges of contemporary citizens of the District—including my own mother, my sister, and her husband and two children.
As President-elect of the Society of American Archivists, a national professional association of 3,600 archivists and records professionals, I find such neglect of public records to be both distressing and near-sighted. The District of Columbia has a responsibility to protect its citizens’ rights in regard to voting, property ownership, marriage, and a myriad of other aspects of the relationship between the people and their government. This is an essential responsibility of the hard-won right of home rule for the District. The city also should take pride in its historical prominence as the nation’s capital and the home for more than 200 years of some of the country’s most significant leaders both in politics and in economics, the arts, and society. This rich heritage is in jeopardy from the poor facilities and inadequate staffing provided for the DC archives and records center.
Paying nearly $250,000 per year to rent storage space from the National Archives and Records Administration flies in the face of sound budgetary controls. These funds would far better serve the District as down payment on an adequate storage facility, as Mr. Davis has repeatedly requested. A second priority should be to provide safer and easier access to these records for both DC residents and researchers.
Because these problems directly affect my own family members, I take strong personal interest in the resolution of this long story of neglect of the District’s vital records. These records include my wife’s birth records, as well as current property and citizenship rights of my mother, my sister, and her family. Their interests and their rights, as well as those of the other citizens of the District of Columbia, are in serious jeopardy because the records that protect them are neglected and inadequately funded by the city.
The records and archives of the District of Columbia are essential to the proper functioning of its government and to the protection of its citizens. It is disheartening that this symbol of home rule and civic pride is being left to rot—and that future generations will be robbed of the knowledge of their heritage and the proud history of the District of Columbia.
On behalf of the Society of American Archivists, we sincerely hope that you and the members of the City Council will take steps to ensure that the DC Archives receives the funding that it needs to survive, and that work begins at once to save these records from loss.
I will be visiting my sister and my mother for the holidays. Because my mother lives only a few blocks from the Archives, I would be glad to meet with Clarence Davis and to assist both you and the Archives staff in planning for a better future of stewardship for these essential records of the District of Columbia. Please let me know how I can help you in meeting this challenge.
Randall C. Jimerson
cc: Clarence Davis
December 10, 2003
Dear Mayor Williams,
I am writing on behalf of the members of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC). Our organization represents archivists and others who care for historical records in the states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and West Virginia, and the District of Columbia.
On December 4, 2003, the Washington Post printed the article "City's Records Center Compiles a History of Neglect: Documents Lie All but Ignored In Dingy Building" by Sewell Chan. This article discusses the history of neglect of the DC Archives, the home of the records that document the history of the District of Columbia. We were very concerned to hear that the records are unprotected with no security staff to ensure that these vital documents are not stolen or damaged, and that there is no conservation or preservation plan to ensure that these records are preserved for future generations to use. As Timothy Ericson, president of the Society of American Archivists noted in the article, "Archival records preserve people's rights: voting rights, property rights. They document marriage, educational achievements, all sorts of things that are important to people in their everyday life." The District of Columbia risks losing its heritage and documentation of its rights, rights that were fought for by the proponents of home rule, through the sub-standard operations of its current archival program.
In addition, the article noted that due to the District's inefficient handling of government records the city is losing money; money that could be used to improve District services or help build a new archives building to safely house the records of the District, including those held by the National Archives and Records Administration. In addition, these "lost" funds could help support a professional staff that could meet the needs of the researchers and implement a records policy that would ensure the appropriate disposition of non-permanent records and protect those permanent records needed to ensure the rights of the District and its people.
It is disheartening that this symbol of home rule and civic pride is being left to rot, and that future generations will be robbed of the knowledge of their heritage and the proud history of the District of Columbia. We hope that you and the members of the City Council will take steps to ensure that the DC Archives receives the funding that it deserves and requires to protect, preserve, and make accessible the records of the District’s heritage, and that work begins immediately to save these records from loss.
Lisa C. Mangiafico, Chair
cc: Linda Cropp, Chair, Council of the District of Columbia
December 11, 2003
Dear Mayor Williams:
I would like to add to the voices of the Society of American Archivists and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference, expressing alarm over the sad state of the District of Columbia Records Center and the District’s handling of its historical records. While the Midwest Archives Conference (MAC), the second-largest professional archival association in the United States, comprises twelve states in the Midwest and is technically outside of the DC geographical area, all of us in the archival profession share the view that significant historical records deserve the best possible care, and failing that, that agencies at least apply minimal preservation and access procedures according to accepted archival standards. Unfortunately, it appears that the District has allowed the DC Records Center to fall below even those minimal conditions. I am deeply concerned about the conditions at the Center as described in the December 4, 2003, Washington Post article, “City’s Records Center Compiles a History of Neglect,” written by Sewell Chan.
As others have emphasized, instituting a program of records management and archival preservation—with strong backing by high officials and office administrators—results in monetary savings. When a municipality tracks its records through their life-cycle, from documents’ initial creation through their active life and later transfer to either the archives (a facility meeting archival standards for environmental control, security, and access) for permanent preservation or for recycling, the city enjoys a handsome return on its investment in professional archival/records management practice. The DC archives operation could become cost-effective while serving as the District’s memory for present and future generations.
The conditions described in the Post, unfortunately, are not unique to the DC archives. In my home state of Indiana, the state archives is poorly funded and needs more support to fulfill its mission to preserve state records of legal, administrative, and/or informational and historical value. Similar conditions exist in other public archives across the nation. Because of the District’s stature as the location of the capital of our country,however, seeing its historic records suffering from this neglect is particularly distressing.
There is a short, but effective motto among archivists, curators, librarians, and persons simply concerned about our nation’s documentary heritage: “No records—no history.” One might add a corollary for municipalities: “No records—no protection from liability and costly storage rental fees.” From fiscal, legal, and historical points of view, operating a professionally administered records center/archives makes sense. I hope you and the DC City Council will find the funds necessary to create such a program in the District of Columbia. Present and future generations will thank you for it.
Stephen McShane, President
December 11, 2003
Dear Mayor Williams:
I am writing on behalf of the Northwest Archivists, Inc., to express our deep concern for the valuable historic records of the District of Columbia. I was in Washington and saw the December 4, 2003, Washington Post article, “City’s Records Center Compiles a History of Neglect,” written by Sewell Chan. I am adding my voice to the archival organizations that have already contacted you, including the Society of American Archivists and the Midwest Archives Conference.
As president of the regional archival association for Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Alaska, and a former resident of the DC area, I find the District’s lack of care for its essential records troubling for a number of reasons. First, unique and important records are being lost. These records are crucial for individuals and for the protection of freedoms. Second, as others have pointed out, paying $250,000 a year to rent space for un-appraised records is fiscally unsound. The District needs a staffed archives and a well-considered program of records management and preservation.
We in the West are no strangers to fiscal realities; we all struggle with tiny budgets, many needs, and huge geographic distances. Yet we manage: Two of the best municipal archives facilities in the United States—Seattle, WA, and Portland, OR—are located in our region.
The District can do a far better job with its records. But the first move rests with you and the DC City Council. I urge you to give serious consideration to the present and future of the District archives. Such a direction can bring nothing but good to the citizens of the District and this country.
Jodi L. Allison-Bunnell
cc: Clarence Davis