“Public access to government records strengthens democracy by allowing Americans to claim their rights of citizenship, hold their government accountable and understand their history.” — From the mission statement of the National Archives and Records Administration
IF WE CAN’T readily put our hands on something, does it have a purpose?
The question fits the proposed demise of the 1946 federal warehouse, the National Archives at Seattle, that for 57 years has had a sole and distinguished use, as the repository for the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Hawaii and (starting in 2014) Alaska. Our revered former U.S. senators Warren Magnuson and Henry “Scoop” Jackson helped dedicate it in 1963.
With a rectangular footprint on 10 acres, the former airplane-parts hangar stands on the farmland of Japanese who were relocated and incarcerated during World War II. It’s tucked along abandoned rail track, now the Burke-Gilman Trail, west of Sand Point Way, north of Seattle Children’s and south of the ex-naval air station that is Magnuson Park.
Executing a 2016 law enabling speedy land disposal, the Public Buildings Reform Board last fall targeted the Seattle archive (which is operated by the National Archives and Records Administration) and 11 other sites nationwide to sell. Why? The parcels are high-value and “underutilized.” Nearly 1,000 people visited the Seattle archives to dig up info last year, which might belie such jargon.
The building is hardly charming, and its deferred maintenance is estimated in the millions of dollars.
What counts is inside — some 800,000 cubic feet of boxed records, 17% of which are permanent and stored in secured, climate-controlled chambers. More significant is what public and agency access to the records would look like if, as proposed, these boxes are shipped at no small expense to federal records centers in Kansas City and/or Riverside, California.
No wonder many historians, news outlets, genealogists, plus eight U.S. senators from four Northwest states, eight of our state’s House members and our state’s attorney general are aghast. Particularly egregious would be the effect on 272 native tribes as well as other nonwhite groups whose stories are captured in Bureau of Indian Affairs documents and immigration interrogation and photo files.
Notice of the plan was scant at best. It came to light nine days before a supposedly final decision on Jan. 24, but opposition is intensifying. Tellingly, none of the other 11 targeted sale sites is a NARA archive, and none, says Adam Bodner of the Public Buildings Reform Board, is generating dissent.
The situation triggers questions both practical and rhetorical: How many could travel 1,200 or 1,900 miles from Seattle to research their past? Would the NARA sale have gained traction in the days of Scoop and Maggie? Will protests alter the outcome? Is there a question that history cannot answer?