It has been called “the nation’s memory.” It preserves and makes available for research historically valuable records of the federal government. Three billion documents, beginning with papers of the Continental Congress, are entrusted to its care.
Such is the National Archives – a half-century old this month – headquartered in an imposing neo-classical style building on Constitutional Avenue in Washington. D.C.
When President Herbert Hoover laid the cornerstone of the bomb-proof structure in 1933, he declared that “this temple of our history… will be one of the most durable, an expression of America’s character.”
The need for a safe, permanent home for national records had been long overdue. Consider, as one example, preservation of the original documents of America’s “charters of freedom” – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.
They now hold a place of honor in the Archives’ ceremonial Rotunda, protected in a specially-designed glass case that is lowered each night into a vault of steel and reinforced concrete.
The faded Declaration of Independence is barely legible to the visitors who file past it and the other charters each day.
Yet its state of preservation is quite amazing when you consider that the document was rolled up after the 1776 signing, stored in a gristmill during the War of 1812, and later put through a damaging “wet sheet transfer process” to make copies, according to the Smithsonian Institution.
Further, the priceless original was displayed in a sun-filled hallway for a number of years.
(The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were transferred from the Library of Congress to Archives in December 1952. The Bill of Rights was brought from the Department of State in 1938.)
The Smithsonian Institution News Service recounts some of the hazards to historical documents in pre-Archives eras. Between 1774 and 1800, the federal records moved with Congress 11 times. When the British invaded Washington, D.C., in the War of 1812 they burned the Capitol and many other government buildings. One can only speculate on the loss of historical records.
Herman Viola of Smithsonian, who has written a book on the Archives, tells bow thousands of valuable papers were damaged as water seeped through storage walls how signatures of such notables of John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay had been cut from documents and how stamp collectors and autograph seekers had helped themselves to valuable records.
Even some of George Washington’s letters had – been ”cut into pieces to spread them further.”
Today’s Archives system tries to ensure that such abuses will not recur.
Besides the Washington headquarters building, the National Archives and Records Service (NARS) operates 11 regional records centers and seven presidential libraries (from Hoover’s to Ford’s).
“In general terms, the raw stuff of the nation’s military, political, scientific and social history is kept at the Archives,” says Smithsonian. For genealogists, the Archives is a treasure.
In this modern age, the federal government generates about 20 million pages of records annually. (Even during World War 11 the figure was only about 4 million.) However, it is estimated that less than 1 percent of the paper mountain is deposited permanently. Nineteen senior Archives staff members – skilled at separating the grains of history from the chaff – have the important task of deciding what to keep.
Searching for the needle in the Archives stacks obviously can be a frustrating paper chase. But that’s another story. Suffice it here to say that we Americans can be thankful for the Archives – in Hoover’s words “this temple of our history.”