Responding to acute budget pressures, staff of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) have proposed drastic cuts to the operating hours for research rooms in the Washington D.C. area, reducing them by one-third.
According to the proposal, an analysis of use found that “significantly fewer researchers used the research rooms during evening and Saturday hours.” Staff have recommended closing the research rooms on Saturday and eliminating all “extended hours” before 9 a.m. and after 5 p.m.. At a public meeting on the subject in early August, Archivist Allen Weinstein described rising concern among NARA administrators about tight fiscal constraints and growing needs over the past year. He said severe flooding in the Archives main building in June (which shut down the building for more than a week) served as a “kick in the ankles” that led to the decision that serious cuts needed to be made.
Academic historians, professional history researchers, professional legal researchers (federal employees as well as private contractors), professional genealogical researchers, amateur genealogists, and archivists all strenuously objected to the proposal. Speaking for their different interests and needs, they all agreed that the cutbacks would severely impede research at the National Archives. For academics and graduate students who need to use the archives, a number of speakers spoke about the need to maximize research time in the very expensive D.C. area. Legal researchers observed that they often face a strict court-ordered deadline for their research, so they may not need those extra hours all the time, but when they do, their need is acute. And of course those who have to fit their research in around a full-time job—whether amateurs, students, or professionals—were particularly vocal and insistent about keeping the existing hours.
A number of speakers noted that by the NARA staff’s own numbers, almost a quarter of the users at the archives work in the hours to be cut, while a third of the available research time would be curtailed under the proposal. Most of the speakers agreed that this would put a severe squeeze on the peculiar ebb and flow of work at the archives, given the limited number of times in which the archives staff pull materials, the limited number of copiers in the rooms, the occasional crush of researchers when a “busload” of researchers comes in for a day visit.
More generally, the speakers offered a pretty compelling picture of the effect compressing the hours would have on the quality of the available research time—more pressure on staff; more time to get through security; more competition for research desks, copiers, and parking; and a real reduction in the amount of research conducted.
Among the constructive ideas offered were suggestions about curtailing the number of extended hours on weekdays (closing at 6:00 or 7:00 p.m., instead of 9 :00 p.m.). The speakers making these proposals—typically the professional researchers, it seemed—emphasized the beneficial affect this had on letting them wait out the day trippers, which allowed them to have some quiet time to gather their thoughts and have some extended time on the copiers. As one might expect, the people with full-time jobs strenuously objected to this, noting that they would just be leaving the office at 5 or 5:30, and so this would effectively prevent them from using the archives at all. They seemed to prefer a cutback in the number of days with extended hours, ideally doing so in a way that one of the Archives I and Archives II buildings was open when the other was closed. As an alternative, a number of people suggested closing during regular business hours one day a week (the preference seemed to be for Mondays).
The minutiae of the proposal and counterproposals should not distract from some of the larger financial pressures on the archives. According to Weinstein and other members of the NARA staff at the meeting, this decision will just be the first link in a coming chain of further cuts—cuts that will be conditioned in part on how much they can save by reducing hours. As has been noted in past issues of Perspectives, the AHA has written regularly to the administrators of the National Archives to ask them to do more on accessions, declassification, access, and electronic recordkeeping.
AHA members who use the National Archives are urged to take action by September 8, 2006, not only by sending specific recommendations on the proposal to the archives staff, but also by writing to their congressional representatives and senators to assure sufficient funding for all of NARA’s critical activities. Specifics on the proposal and a form for comment can be found at http://www.regulations.gov (type in “NARA-06-0007-0001”, without the quotation marks, into the “Keyword or ID” field).
Copyright © American Historical Association.
Printed from: http://www.historians.org/Perspectives/NewsBriefs/2006/0608/0608bri1.cfm on May 24, 2013
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