Which federal agency is in charge of preserving approximately 10 billion pages of textual records; 12 million maps, charts and drawings; 25 million still photographs and graphics; 24 million aerial photographs; 300,000 reels of motion picture film; 400,000 video and sound recordings; and 133 terabytes of electronic data? The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is an independent federal agency that serves as the nation’s record keeper. Contrary to popular belief, it does not preserve all federal records; it keeps only those that are judged to have long-term, continuing value—about 2 to 5 percent of those generated in any given year.
Congress and President Franklin Roosevelt established the National Archives in 1934 to centralize federal record keeping, and created the position of the archivist of the United States as its chief administrator. (Before then, individual government agencies were in charge of maintaining their own records.) In 1949, the National Archives was placed within the newly formed General Services Administration (GSA), and the archivist was subordinate to the GSA administrator until April 1, 1985, when the agency was renamed NARA and made independent again. President Obama’s FY 2013 budget included $386.8 million for NARA, a reduction from the $392 million Congress provided the agency for the current fiscal year.
Even before the agency was established, Congress appropriated $6.9 million (a figure that later grew to $8.5 million) for a National Archives building in 1926, as part of a massive public buildings program that eventually led to the creation of the Federal Triangle. The task of designing the National Archives building fell to distinguished architect John Russell Pope, who set out to create a structure that would be in harmony with other great Washington landmarks while also expressing the significance, safety and permanence of the records to be deposited inside. Ground was broken at 700 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., in 1931; President Herbert Hoover laid the cornerstone in 1933; and the staff moved in in 1935. This iconic building holds the original copies of the three main formative documents of the United States and its government: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. When the structure reached its capacity of 900,000 square feet in the late 1960s, many records were moved to off-site storage and regional archives.
A second archives building was completed in 1993. The six-story National Archives at College Park, Md., located at 8601 Adelphi Road, holds approximately 2 million cubic feet of records; its research rooms can accommodate up to 390 researchers at a time. NARA has since grown to 44 facilities nationwide, from Atlanta to Anchorage, in both owned and leased space. Archives locations in 17 states protect and provide public access to millions of records. As we reported earlier this year, 17 Federal Records Centers (FRCs) store another 27 million cubic feet of records, providing federal agencies with storage, access, and disposition services through this national network. The National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis manages the records of millions of military veterans as well as former civilian federal employees. Ten affiliated archives locations hold—by formal, written agreement with NARA—accessioned records. NARA also maintains the Presidential Library system, a nationwide network of 13 libraries that preserve and provide access to the documents of most U.S. presidents since Herbert Hoover. (Other presidential libraries are owned and maintained by private foundations, historical societies or state governments.)
This fall, NARA’s New York City research facility will move from Varick Street in Greenwich Village (where it has been located for 20 years) to the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House—a Beaux-Arts structure considered one of the most significant historic buildings in GSA’s national inventory—at One Bowling Green in Lower Manhattan.