Matthew B. Gilmore
PUBLISHED: SEPTEMBER 21ST, 2017
The National Archives, our nation’s record keeper, holds millions of DC Government<https://www.archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/groups/351.html> and DC-related including tens of thousands of photographs, reels of film, maps, artifacts, and more. These holdings include records on immigration into Alexandria and Georgetown, slavery in DC, congressional and district court records, military service during the Civil War, and census records. We not only hold these records, we provide public access to them in person at the National Archives Building to anyone age 14 and older with a photo ID.
Thus, we were surprised to read the August 11th InTowner article “National Archives and District of Columbia Records” incorrectly stating that public access to these important records would be limited. This is not correct.
[Editor’s Note: A detailed response by the author of the referenced article follows this statement from the Archives’ public affairs office.]
Given space limitations, infrequently-used holdings may be centrally stored at National Archives at Kansas City. While the bulk of the U.S. District Court for DC records remain here in DC, the following two small groups were moved to KS, and remain available to researchers there or can be requested online: Civil and Criminal Case Files, 1937-1970, which were moved in 2008;. Records since 1970 remain at the National Archives Building in DC. Also relocated are the less than 1,000 shelf feet of the Bankruptcy Act of 1898 Case Files 1898-1979 were moved in 2015 to consolidate Bankruptcy Case files from facilities nationwide into one location.
Additionally, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), a branch of the National Archives, provides grants to preserve, publish, and encourage the use of documentary sources, including many related to DC that are not part of our holdings. The NHPRC has supported the DC Public Library, the DC Government, Gallaudet University, the DC Historical Records Advisory Board, and more. A comprehensive list of these District of Columbia grants from 1978 – 2016 is published on the NHPRC website.
Program Director for Public Affairs
[Editor’s Note: We were also provided with a listing of what the writer characterized as “highlights of our extensive DC-related holdings here in DC.”]
DC Records at Archives: Matthew B. Gilmore Responds
The National Archives’ response to the concerns recently raised is disappointingly non-responsive. Clearly the National Archives does not (nor do members of the local DC historical community) have an awareness of the special responsibility the Archives it bears as the holder of the largest collection of historical archival materials related to the District of Columbia.
The specific issue raised of transferring District of Columbia court records to Kansas City was not addressed. Indeed, the example of the Bankruptcy Court records which have been consolidated in Kansas City is a very disturbing precedent. Evidently all bankruptcy cases, including DC cases, are now only available by electronic request.
“On-Site Review Services have been Discontinued: The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is now providing access to court records exclusively by online ordering or by mail or fax. NARA will no longer provide on-site court case review services to the public at its Federal Records Centers.
This change applies to all closed bankruptcy, civil, criminal, and court of appeals case files that remain in the legal custody of the courts but are physically stored at NARA’s Federal Records Centers.
The National Archives is making this change because records can now easily be ordered electronically. It is no longer cost-effective to operate satellite research rooms to provide access to these records.”
This may sound reasonable and even an improvement, but the request is only for copies; it seems the actual records are not available to consult. This makes research a very expensive proposition. If the case is a large one it will be a very expensive request. Request multiple cases and the cost mounts. Monetizing records in this fashion–is this a policy the National Archives stakeholders approve? Who decided and approved that “cost-effectiveness” determination?
No criticism of the care of the District of Columbia government records held by the Archives was suggested. They comprise Record group 351.
The Archive’s website does also have a page listing that and other DC-related records, but it is simply not even an attempt to describe all the DC-related records in the Archives.
Important record groups like those of the Records of the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital, the National Capital Planning Commission, National Capital Housing Authority, Commission of Fine Arts, the Rent Commission of the District of Columbia are not included. For a fuller picture just consult the “Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States” online under ‘D’and under ‘W’.
The concern is that these and other record groups which document the District of Columbia should continue to be housed in the National Capital Region and that the court records not be sequestered off in Kansas City and inaccessible for free research consultation.