Anyone who has cleaned out a family attic knows the difficulty of deciding what is worth keeping and what can be discarded.
Imagine the task of sifting through the accumulated papers of a nation's official life -- growing by billions of pieces a year -- and determining what to retain and what to destroy.
This function is performed by the National Archives, a federal institution that holds the power of life or death over the wide-ranging records of the United States government.
Although the National Archives was not established until 1934, its major holdings date back to 1775. They capture the sweep of the past: slave ship manifests and the Emancipation Proclamation; captured German records and the Japanese surrender document from World War II; journals of polar expeditions and photographs of Dust Bowl farmers; Indian treaties making transitory promises; and a richly bound document bearing the bold signature "Bonaparte" -- the Louisiana Purchase Treaty that doubled the territory of the young republic. In short, the National Archives preserves the record of the nation's civil, military, and diplomatic activities. On permanent display are the Great Charters: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights.
The National Archives keeps only those federal records that are judged to have an enduring value -- about 2 to 3 percent of those generated in any given year. By now, they add up to a formidable number, diverse in form as well as in content. There are about 3 billion pages of textual material; 5 million still pictures, including Civil War photographs by Mathew Brady; 91 million feet of motion picture film reaching back to the inauguration of President William McKinley in 1897 and including documentaries, combat footage, and news-reels; 70,000 sound recordings including congressional hearings, news broadcasts, Supreme Court arguments, Tokyo Rose's radio propaganda from World War II, and the Nuremberg trials; 2 million cartographic items; and 9 million aerial photographs. All of these materials are preserved because they are important to the workings of government, or have long-term research worth, or provide information of value to ordinary citizens -- for example, military service and pension records, federal census schedules, and ship passenger lists recording the arrival of immigrants.
Although the National Archives was created primarily for use by government, its rich stores of material are available to all: historians interpreting the past, journalists researching stories, students preparing term papers, Indian tribes pressing claims, and persons tracing their ancestry or satisfying their curiosity about particular historical events. The National Archives serves as the nation's memory for a multitude of purposes.
Concern for the perservation of the records of the nation was expressed early. "Time and accident," Thomas Jefferson had warned, "are committing daily havoc on the originals deposited in our public offices." A century of such admonition went unheeded however. Tentative plans for an archives were developed before World War I following a number of damaging fires in government buildings, but the outbreak of the war delayed the project. It was not until the Great Depression that historians and others concerned with the preservation of the nation's records saw their hopes realized.
The task of designing an archives building was given to the distinguished architect John Russell Pope. He set out to create a structure that would be in harmony with other great Washington landmarks -- the White House, Capitol, Treasury Building and Lincoln Memorial -- and at the same time express the significance, safety, and permanence of the records to be deposited inside. One has only to look at the great Corinthian columns (72 of them weighing 95 tons apiece) and at the classic facade, pierced by bronze doors a foot thick and 40 feet tall, to know that Pope succeeded.
Ground for the building was broken in 1931, the cornerstone was laid by President Herbert Hoover in 1933, and the staff moved in to work in 1935. The building was equipped with 21 levels of steel and concrete stack areas, windowless and temperature-controlled for document preservation purposes and protected with fire safety devices. Provided also were technical facilities in which deteriorating documents could be restored and frequently needed records reproduced.
Most important to the new agency was the professional staff. Carefully recruited and trained, it faced in those early years the mammoth task of devising policies and operating procedures for the new institution and of collecting and inventorying a 160-year backlog of records, many of them packed helter-skelter into scattered attics and basements. Yet in less than a generation, the National Archives became a model for preserving the permanently valuable records of the nation. This achievement is the more remarkable given the undreamed-of growth of the federal government and the proliferation of paperwork during this period.
There were added responsibilities: publishing the Federal Register, a daily record of government proclamations, orders, and regulations; operating the Presidential library system for the papers of the Presidents beginning with Hoover; running a Government-wide program to ensure adequate documentation and appropriate disposition of government records; reproducing selected records on microfilm to make them more readily available to the public; and administering a nation-wide network of 14 records centers, in which records are often held temporarily pending a decision to keep or destroy.
Two centers are national in scope: the Washington National Records Center at Suitland, MD, a suburb of Washington, and the National Personnel Records Center of St. Louis. The others are regional in character and are part of a National Archives centers system. These centers also house field archives branches. The holdings of these archives are chiefly of regional interest but also include microfilm copies of many of the most important records in the National Archives.
Under the dome on the Constitution Avenue [side] is the Rotunda, where the great documents of America's formation, written in flowing script on sheets of parchment, are permanently displayed. The pages of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights are sealed into individual bronze and glass cases in which air has been replaced by protective helium.
Light filters prevent fading. At closing time, the documents are lowered from their marble setting into a vault below the floor. On the side walls of the Rotunda are two murals: Thomas Jefferson presenting the Declaration of Independence to John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress, and James Madison presenting the Constitution to George Washington, President of the Constitutional Convention. Other exhibits in the Rotunda and the Circular Gallery highlight major events in the nation's history.
The National Archives Building has numerous sculptural decorations and inscriptions, but the words on the base of one statue have become identified with the institution itself. Cut into the stone are these words from Shakespeare's The Tempest: "What is past is prologue." There is no better reason for preserving the documentary materials of the American experience.
Hours For Visiting And StudyingThe Exhibition Hall is open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. except during winter months (the day after Labor Day through March 31) when the Exhibition Hall is closed at 5:30 p.m. The building is closed on Christmas Day. The Pennsylvania Avenue entrance provides access to the central Research and Microfilm Research Rooms, which are open Mondays through Fridays from 8:45 a.m. to 10 p.m., and on Saturdays from 8:45 a.m. to 5:15 p.m.; the rooms are closed on federal holidays.