An important piece of the Pacific Northwest’s historical record stands at risk of being shipped away to warehouses across the country.
With no warning to the region, the obscure federal Public Buildings Reform Board put Seattle’s branch of the National Archives on a shortlist of federal sites to sell off. If the move is not stopped, anyone wanting to examine the collection’s tribal treaty documents, military and census records, or case files from the Chinese Exclusion Act will need to travel to Archives facilities in Riverside, California, or Kansas City, Missouri.
Neither is a fit place to store records from Washington, Alaska, Idaho and Oregon that are currently housed at the Federal Archives and Records Center on Sand Point Way Northeast. The potential loss alarms historians, researchers and others who need access to these federally kept records.
The boneheaded process that imperils the facility caught political leaders by surprise. Most of Washington’s congressional delegation, the state attorney general and the secretary of state together are mounting a bold resistance, calling for the federal decision to be reversed and for the site to remain open.
The federal government has no shortage of buildings to cull. The 2018 Federal Real Property Summary counted 111,442 federally-owned buildings. Agencies identified 3,817 as underutilized or unused. In 2016, Congress created the Public Buildings Reform Board to find high-dollar properties to sell off.
Board members reported they worked in “a relatively short time frame” to pick a dozen sites. Members took office in May; recommendations went to Congress in October. These hasty national decisions involved shamefully little opportunity for regional feedback. The board held four public meetings last July. The closest to Seattle was in Denver. Transcripts at the agency website show no discussion of the Seattle site.
No notice went to state archivists in Alaska, Idaho, Washington or Oregon when the board recommended to sell off Seattle’s Archives outpost. No other National Archives facility made the list, though another Washington site, a 129-acre Auburn property containing mostly vacant warehouses, did.
The Archives’ Northeast Seattle property meets the board’s definition of a “high value” asset to sell. The building sits on 10 leafy acres of developable land adjoining residential neighborhoods. But the legislation that established this new process also included a requirement to consider how “public access to agency services is maintained or enhanced.” This decision fails that test.
The public’s ability to access the National Archives documents from the Pacific Northwest will suffer if long-distance travel is required. Seattle’s facility director, Susan Karren, said “probably .001%” of its holdings are digitized. Every U.S. senator from the four Northwest states and most members of Washington’s Congressional delegation signed a bipartisan letter opposing the move. The letter quoted the president of the Alaska Historical Society, who said the closure “would make research a logistic nightmare and far more financially burdensome than it already is currently.”
This new burden would reverberate beyond historians. Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, who oversees the State Archives in Olympia, wrote a letter to the state’s Congressional delegation opposing the move, saying that attorneys, government workers and journalists all need physical access to archival records.
“If you’re taking away the information,” said University of Washington Information School assistant professor Miranda Belarde-Lewis, “you’re removing from many different types of people their ability to access their own history, which is severely limiting to their ability to fight for their own rights.”
Even at Seattle real estate prices, the facility sale won’t go far toward meeting federal needs. Taking National Archives far out of state would, however, inflict damage across multiple states. If Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s attempt to block this move, which could include a lawsuit, falls short, the region’s leaders in Congress should work across party lines to keep a National Archives location within Washington’s borders.