Noteworthy

Archives II: Short-Term Inconvenience, Long-Term Improvement

Don Wilson, October 1992

"Nothing endures but change," wrote Heraclitus some twenty-five centuries ago. All of us realize the wisdom that resides in these four words. Heraclitus might well have added that sometimes one must endure change itself. As researchers and archivists, we are facing a major change in how the National Archives serves its publics. This is because of the construction of a new main facility, commonly referred to as "Archives II."

Preparations for the relocation to this new facility, the move itself, and adjustments to the research environment of Archives II will affect all of us for the next several years. Like many changes, this one has its unpleasant aspects. I am reminded of the construction signs that read, "Short-Term Inconvenience, Long-Term Improvement." That message may not be very comforting when we are heading down an unfamiliar detour or waiting in a long line of traffic for a paver to do its work. But temporary annoyances are necessary for progress, whether that is a new highway or a new archival facility. The result, the largest and most modern archives in the world, will be well worth what researchers and archivists must endure to get there. I would like to share my enthusiasm for Archives II with you and describe some of those temporary annoyances.

The National Archives and its users have for many years struggled with overcrowded and otherwise inadequate storage spaces, research rooms, offices, and public areas in a building that was erected almost sixty years ago. Despite our best efforts to keep up with growing needs, our holdings have been dispersed, working conditions for our staff members have been substandard, and our researchers have had to work under less than satisfactory conditions. The truth is that the National Archives has for years been unable to provide the kind of research environment for its increasing number of researchers that it should provide. We who work for the National Archives feel this inadequacy as much as does the researcher who is squeezed into a research room or must wait awhile for a microfilm reader.

Years ago the National Archives concluded that no solution to this situation could be achieved at its Seventh Street and Pennsylvania Avenue location. We ultimately chose, therefore, to construct an entirely new facility adjacent to the campus of the University of Maryland at College Park. Archives II, begun in October 1989, is less than a year away from completion. The outer construction is finished, interior partitions are mostly in place, the mobile shelving (all 520 miles of it) is being put into position, and equipment and furniture are being installed. The first National Archives staff members will relocate in the fall of 1993, and the initial records to be moved will be close behind them.

Archives II will—for many scholarly researchers—largely replace the original National Archives Building in downtown Washington, D.C. With 1.7 million square feet on six floors, the National Archives will be able to consolidate the archival records and staff members that have been housed at numerous sites in Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia. Most of the civil records of the Federal Government (major exceptions are the records of Congress and the Supreme Court) and many military records will be transferred to Archives II. In addition, all nontextual and electronic records will be relocated there, along with conservation laboratories, research facilities, the Nixon Presidential Materials, and a large proportion of the archivists and other staff members who work for the National Archives. (Most family history records will remain in our existing building.)

Among the many features of Archives II are a number of particular interest to researchers. There will be only one security checkpoint for access to all of the research rooms, which are clustered together in one part of the building. These rooms, I should add, look out over a pleasant, wooded vista. The addition of Archives II will mean far more seats, microfilm readers, and copying equipment than we now have. Archivists will have commodious places for consultations with researchers. A totally new Archival Information System for reference use will be installed. Free parking for hundreds of researchers and visitors, as well as a full-service cafeteria, will be provided. Archives II will be linked by shuttle bus to the adjacent University of Maryland and to the nearest Metro station. From a long-term perspective, we can also rejoice in the fact that records will be maintained in optimal conditions, in stack areas as secure from fire, physical deterioration, and other risks as we can make them. And with the additional space in the new building, the National Archives will be able to accession more records, more quickly, so that our holdings will begin to increase rapidly again.

All in all, then, we at the National Archives look forward to a much happier state of affairs, for both researchers and the professionals who assist them. You will have a much-improved research environment. You will be able to do your research more efficiently. You will have more records available to you. And we can meet the standards you—and we—expect the National Archives to meet. I am convinced we will achieve our goal of making Archives II the finest archival repository in the world.

One consequence of the relocation to Archives II, of course, is that records to be moved have to be temporarily unavailable as they are readied, physically transported, and then reopened at Archives II. It goes without saying that the job of transferring and rearranging 1.3 million cubic feet of records cannot be handled all at once! Careful planning will enable us to take records out of use for only a short time—probably no more than six or eight weeks. Researchers planning a trip to use records in the National Archives should, therefore, be aware of the fact that records may be temporarily unavailable. We are publicizing as widely as possible our schedule for the move so that potential researchers are informed about it, and Perspectives will be carrying the latest news about the move as the plan continues to be refined. I suggest that you write to Donn Neal at the National Archives, and ask to be put on the mailing list for the Archives II Researcher Bulletin. When we get closer to the actual move, we will announce the telephone number of a recorded message with the latest updates.

The move schedule calls for nontextual records (cartographic, motion picture, sound, videotape, still photography, and electronic records) to be transported first, between December 1993 and March 1994. Textual records will move as complete record groups, in clusters that correspond to the major departments of the Federal Government. This portion of the move will extend through December of 1995. (A chart below lists when these clusters are expected to move.) Records in the National Archives have in fact already benefitted from the move, even though it is months away: our staff members have been working energetically to identify all the records the National Archives already holds; to rebox, preserve, and otherwise prepare records for transfer; and to design a new arrangement of records so that complementary holdings can be brought together in the stacks. Naturally, all of this will benefit researchers too.

Through Perspectives and the other means I have mentioned, researchers will be able to tell when the specific record groups within the clusters will be moving to Archives II. I am sure researchers are as eager as we at the National Archives are to have this period of transition behind us. What keeps us going is the knowledge that a far better research and working environment awaits us in Archives II. Good planning, a little patience, and a growing sense of anticipation should get the National Archives through this relocation. We appreciate the understanding of researchers who approach our move in that same spirit, and we look forward to the time when we can welcome you to Archives II.

—Don Wilson is the Archivist of the United States.

Textual Records Move by Cluster

Interior Jan.–Sept. 94
Agriculture Jan.–Oct. 94
Transportation Jan.–July 94
Commerce Feb.–Oct. 94
Energy July–Sept. 94
Labor Sept. 94–Apr. 95
State/Foreign Relations Sept. 94–Apr. 95
General Government Oct. 94–Apr. 95
Justice Nov. 94–May 95
Science Dec. 94–Apr. 95
Treasury Apr.–Dec. 95
EOP/Presidential Agencies Apr.–June 95
Health Apr.–July 95
Modern Army Apr. 95–Mar. 96
Education June–Sept. 95
Air Force July–Sept. 95
Housing Sept.–Oct. 95
Defense Oct. 95–Mar. 96

The move of classified records from the National Archives Building and Washington National Records Center to Archives II is planned for Sept. 94–Oct. 94. Nixon materials are planned to be moved from Pickett Street, Alexandria, Virginia, to Archives II between December 1993 and January 1994.

Nontextual Records Move to Archives II

Cartographic Dec. 93–Jan. 94
Motion Picture, Video Jan.–Feb. 94
Still Photography Feb.–Mar. 94
Electronic Mar. 94