Publication Date

May 1, 1989

Perspectives Section


NCC Presents Testimony on National Archives and NHPRC Budget

In testimony before the House and Senate Appropriations Subcommittees on Treasury, Postal Service, and General Government, the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History (NCC) has advocated $150 million in FY’ 90 for the National Archives. This would include $8 million, the authorized funding level established by Congress last year, for the National Historical Publications and Records Commissions’ (NHPRC) grants program, and an additional $20 million for the National Archives. The Administration’s budget calls for only $122.6 million for the National Archives with zero funding for NHPRC grants.

For over eight years the NCC member organizations have worked on behalf of a strong National Archives and NHPRC. Our attention first focused on separating the National Archives from the General Services Administration. After the National Archives became an independent agency in 1984, we waged a campaign to insure the selection of a professional non-partisan U.S. Archivist. With that accomplished a little over a year ago, the NCC is now developing a strategy for addressing the long-term pattern of inadequate funding for the National Archives and the NHPRC grants program.

There have been warning signals for several decades that the National Archives had inadequate resources to achieve its mandated tasks. In 1965, the third Archivist of the United States, Wayne C. Grover, announced his retirement because of his distress over the demands and restrictions imposed on the National Archives. In 1967 three archival and historical organizations formed the Joint Committee on the Status of the National Archives and, after conducting a major study, concluded that the National Archives could not carry out its mission with its limited resources. Over a decade later in 1979, Kurt Muellenberg, Inspector General, testified before the House Subcommittee on Government Information on management and operation of the National Archives and verified that the National Archives had significant backlogs in accessioning and description areas and had been unable through the Office of Management and Budget to get funding for their basic mission. In this same 1979 hearing the Instructor General emphasized the insufficient funds for working with the agencies and pointed out that the National Archives had no operating handbooks for implementing policies and procedures and had not even reasonably defined the scope and magnitude of their responsibilities.

In 1983 Senator Thomas Eagleton in introducing legislation to restore to the National Archives independent agency status, addressed the issue of inadequate resources and quoted Archivist James Rhoads, who in 1980, stated that the National Archives simply did not have enough money to make any significant headway against the years of backlog of neglect. Although Eagleton pointed out the serious negative effects of the 1982 cuts on the National Archives program, he stressed that that the National Archives had been on a “very tight leash long before the Reagan budget cuts.” Eagleton reported that from 1976 to 1981, before the harmful cuts, the overall staff of the Archives actually decreased by 1 percent.

The NCC member organizations believe that the situation has reached crisis proportion and are thus urging Congress take a hard look at both the National Archives’ responsibilities and its resources. The appraisal of records to determine which merit preservation and which should be destroyed is one of the National Archives’ most important tasks. Yet the Archives has nominal contact with other federal agencies and provides little support in identifying, scheduling, and transferring records. The advent of electronic recordkeeping makes it even more crucial that the National Archives provide agencies with needed guidance. The National Academy of Public Administration’s recent study, “The Effects of Electronic Recordkeeping on the Historical Records of the U.S. Government” includes seventeen recommendations which include the need for the National Archives to direct considerably more resources, staff, and attention to electronic records and to working with the federal agencies to guarantee the preservation and accessibility of electronic records. Many state archives fund this key function at a proportionately higher level than NARA. For example, in Alabama there are seven state archives staff people working with state agencies, while the National Archives has less than twenty staff people working with all the federal agencies.

The problem of inadequate description of records is equally severe. Approximately one-third of the records of the National Archives either have no finding aides or inadequate finding aides. Until a major initiative is undertaken to deal with the enormous backlog of inadequately described records, those who wish to use the records will continue to be doomed to missing much or most of the documentation relating to their study. The servicing of records, also suffers from a serious shortage of knowledgeable staff members. For many key record groups at the National Archives there is no staff with extensive knowledge of the records. Without staff members who have intimate knowledge of the records, many records can never be identified adequately and used effectively. The intellectual resources of the National Archives have been dissipated; this trend must be reversed.

While the resources and staff at the National Archives have diminished or remained static, the records of government and the responsibilities of the National Archives are increasing. The size of the National Archives’ staff is approximately the same today as it was in 1976. Yet every four months the federal government produces every four months a stack of records equal to all those produced in the 124 years between George Washington and Woodrow Wilson. In the last few years, the National Archives has acquired some extremely complex and massive groups of records—for example, the records of the Congressional investigation of the Iran-Contra affair, the files of special prosecutors, the records of the AIDs Commission, and the records of the Vietnam War. Thus, not only is the Archives not able to complete its earlier responsibilities, but there have been no additional staff to accompany these new responsibilities.

In a democratic society, citizens expect the government to preserve the records of enduring value and to make them available to the public. The amount of money allocated to archives frequently reflects the level of appreciation of the valuable functions that the archives perform. The expenditure for the National Archives of Canada is approximately $2.14 (Canadian dollars) per capita. In the United States some of the states allocate over $1 per capita for their state archives. But the current budget for the National Archives is only 50 cents per capita. This is simply not adequate for the work that is needed.

The additional $20 million proposed for the National Archives is just a beginning for addressing many serious inadequacies and does not even deal with the costs of preserving and declassifying an enormous backlog of records. The National Archives is entrusted with the stewardship of federal records of enduring value, both for administrative efficiency and accountability and for the study of American history. This mission merits adequate funding. Historians and archivists, who understand well both the mission and the lack of resources, have assumed the task of informing Congress of the enormous gap between responsibilities and funding.

GAO Issues Report on FOIA

Over a year ago Representative Glenn English (D-OK) requested that the General Accounting Office (GAO) examine the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) operation at the State Department. For the past decade historians as well as other FOIA users who have requested State Department documents have experienced excessive delays and problems. The GAO report released last month confirmed many deficiencies. On receiving the report from GAO, Representative Robert E. Wise, Jr. (D-WV), the newly elected chair of the House Subcommittee on Government Information, Justice and Agriculture said, “I knew that there were problems with FOIA operation at some agencies. I had no idea that things were so bad.” Wise did note that since the initiation of the GAO study, the State Department had hired additional staff to assist with the FOIA operation. But he also announced that he has requested Secretary of State James A. Baker III to advise the subcommittee in sixty days what steps the agency has undertaken to improve is compliance with the FOIA.

Paper Preservation

This spring Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI) introduced S.J. RES. 57, legislation to establish a national policy to promote and encourage the printing of books and other publications of enduring value on alkaline, permanent paper. The deterioration of a large percentage of nineteenth- and twentieth-century books and records printed on acidic paper has alerted librarians, archivists, members of the research community, and Congressional leaders to the need for a national paper preservation policy. Extensive research conducted over the past several decades has demonstrated that alkaline paper has a significantly longer shelf-life than acidic papers. In introducing this legislation Senator Pell noted that the technology exists to implement this national policy and that more than thirty paper mills in the United States currently produce alkaline paper, and incentives for others to convert include potentially lowered manufacturing costs and substantially reduced environmental pollution.

New Study on Research in the National Park System Completed

In 1986 National Parks Director William Penn Mott, Jr. recommended the establishment of a panel of scientists and cultural management specialists to reexamine the research policies of the National Parks. When it appeared that the National Park Service was unable internally to undertake such a project, the National Parks and Conservation Association with support from the Mellon Foundation embarked on the project. The National Parks and Conservation Association began by constituting a distinguished panel, chaired by Dr. John C. Gordon, Dean, School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University, and that also included Dr. Barbara Howe, chair, National Council on Public History and history professor, West Virginia University. This spring the panel, officially called the Commission on Research and Resource Management Policy in the National Park System, completed its year-long study and issued a report, “National Parks: From Vignettes to a Global View.” The report concluded that parks are threatened more and more by pollution and population growth and are themselves becoming “rare species.” A series of recommendations in the report centered on the need for strengthening the professional staff and their participation in their respective scholarly communities and expanding the quantity and improving the quality of the National Park Service’s research program.

Page Putnam Miller
Page Putnam Miller

University of South Carolina