Seattle National Archives Threatened with Closure

On January 13, the staff at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) Federal Archives and Records Center in Seattle, WA, were informed that the facility would be closed within the next four years, and the records moved to NARA facilities in Kansas, City, MO and Riverside, CA. The decision was announced with no prior notice to staff, stakeholders, or users—and Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson has threatened legal action against the agency that recommended its closure.

Seattle Archives logoOn January 13, the staff at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) Federal Archives and Records Center in Seattle, WA, were informed that the facility would be closed within the next four years, and the records moved to NARA facilities in Kansas, City, MO and Riverside, CA. The decision was announced with no prior notice to staff, stakeholders, or users—and Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson has threatened legal action against the agency that recommended its closure.

The Seattle National Archives hold some 58,000 cubic feet of historic federal records from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Alaska, dating from the 1840s through the 21st century. These include court, census, and tax records, as well as documentation of tribal membership and land claims, Forest Service timber sales, land claims and disputes, documents of the navigability of federally owned waters, ongoing scientific research, naturalization records, and more. Users include state agencies, universities, researchers, scientists, tribal members, genealogists, historians, and students. The Seattle archives also contain the contents of NARA’s former Alaska facility, which closed in 2014; at the time, Alaska residents were told that those records would remain in the Pacific Northwest.

NARA has stated that a specific date has not been set for the facility’s closure. The sale of the building is projected to take approximately 18 months, and the archives will be allowed to remain in the building for another three years after that.

 

FLAWED PROCESS

The decision to move the archives was driven by a determination from the Public Buildings Reform Board (PBRB), a five-person federal panel in charge of trimming federal properties as part of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics. In a letter dated December 27, 2019, PBRB administration wrote to Russell Vought, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), identifying 12 underutilized properties across the country that could be sold off at high value. The 73-year-old building, which sits on ten acres in northeast Seattle, was deemed underutilized as part of the 2016 Federal Assets Sale and Transfer (FASTA) legislation, and said to require too much “deferred maintenance.” The board recommended that the property be sold to developers, and its contents relocated.

However, a number of stakeholders have objected to the fact that PBRB did not follow the correct protocol for determining which properties should be shuttered, including public engagement and local public hearings. A January 24 letter to OMB , signed by all Washington, Alaska, Oregon, and Idaho senators and eight of the ten Washington state representatives to Congress, pointed out that according to the “Methodology for Identifying Properties for Disposal and Implementing PBRB Recommendations” chart included in PBRB’s letter, OMB lists Step 5 as: “Solicit Input from Stakeholders and Public.”

“The respective state archivists should have been identified as important stakeholders in the decision impacting a federal archive and records center that holds records from a number of states,” the letter stated, in part. “Yet, the State Archivists of Alaska, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon were not made aware of the recommendation until January 15, 2020—after the PBRB sent its final recommendations to OMB.”

No members of the Washington State Congressional delegation were notified (although the January 24 letter states that “it appears PBRB attempted to notify” them), nor was any notification or request for comments sent to the members of the delegations representing the states with interests in the archives’ contents. None of the tribes or Alaska Natives with records held in the facility was consulted, nor any state historical societies.

“We believe that the process used by the PBRB to identify and recommend properties for expedited disposal was flawed,” the letter stated, and requested that OMB reject the PBRB’s recommendations, and work with elected officials to reauthorize PBRB with clearer requirements for identifying properties for sale and redevelopment, increase transparency of the process, and invite wider input.

Finally, there has been no information offered regarding how the facility’s closure would affect its current employees. Moving the records would mean the loss of deep institutional knowledge on the part of archives staff.

PBRB’s mission, the board’s Executive Director Adam Bodner told Government Matters in January, “is really to look at underutilized or unnecessary federal real estate and expedite its disposal. The law that set us up, the Federal Assets Sale and Transfer Act, gave us some authorities that [the government] doesn’t typically have,” Bodner said. “It enables us to go ‘straight to sale’ with some of the properties rather than through the normal federal disposal process.”

But whereas PBRB states that the facility has a maintenance backlog of $2,399,302 and operating and maintenance costs of $356,763, it does not explain what the financial benefits would be if the property were to be closed, sold, and redeveloped—or what it would cost for NARA to upgrade the facilities that would receive the Seattle archives, and to relocate them. (At press time, neither NARA nor PBRB had responded to LJ’s requests for comment.)

On February 25, Ferguson issued his ultimatum to OMB. In a letter to Vought, he stated that the agencies failed to consider “the unique historical nature of the archives location and the importance the records hold for tribes and native corporations in the Pacific Northwest as well as the local Chinese-American and Japanese-American communities,” citing Executive Order 13175, an Obama administration order requiring government entities to consult with tribal communities on “Policies that have tribal implications.”

Ferguson hopes to meet with OMB and PBRB before March 18, he wrote. And while he wishes to avoid litigation, his team is preparing legal action if PBRB chooses to go ahead with the archives’ relocation. He has sued the Trump administration more than 50 times—prevailing in more than 20 suits. The majority of those, he told KIRO, have been won through the Administrative Procedure Act, which requires agencies “to take certain procedural steps before they make changes to people’s lives.”

 

TRIBAL RECORDS, PHYSICAL ARTIFACTS

"I've been here 30 years and I have literally seen the same people come in as students doing their undergraduate work, their Masters work, their PhD, and then they're bringing their students in. You see entire generations go through,” Seattle National Archives Director Susan Karren told LJ.

Some 50,000 case files from the Chinese Exclusion Act document Chinese immigrants who came to the United States through ports in Seattle, Portland, Sumas, Port Townsend, and Vancouver, BC from 1882 to 1943. “Anyone of Chinese ancestry, if they were entering or leaving the country and wanted to return, had to go through this [registration] process. It didn't matter if you were a student coming in, or if you were the ambassador going to Washington, DC,” Karren said. “Those are invaluable for people who are searching for their family history, or somebody who is looking into the Chinese experience.”

The archives also hold records for 96 national forests in the Pacific Northwest, dating back to the early 20th century. The Silviculture Report, issued by the Forest Service, “describe what was in the forest: the types of trees, where the trees were growing, at what elevations, how large the trees were,” explained Karren—an indispensable picture of what the forest looked like 100 years ago. The collection contains chronicles of the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, and the building of the Ballard Locks, among other events of national historical significance.

Seattle archives records help the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determine who is responsible for environmental cleanup responsibilities as well, Karren noted. “They realized in the ’90s that formerly used defense sites that had been cleaned up may not have been cleaned as well as they should have been—you've got farmers in old bombing ranges plowing their fields, and they come up with ordnance.”

And the archives are not only resources for researchers. The facility’s records are in regular use by members of the 272 federally recognized U.S. Pacific Northwest tribes to determine and establish proof of tribal citizenship, which is necessary for education funds and fishing rights, among others. The collections also hold Indian Residential School records from Alaska and Oregon.

Some 20 local tribal leaders were able to meet with NARA representatives on February 11. The meeting was held on short notice, according to the Seattle Times, and was described as an “outreach meeting,” rather than a discussion about keeping the archives in the region. The meeting was closed to the public and the media, but a group rallied outside the facility, holding signs that read “Tribal records are sacred” and “Silence is betrayal.”

While some of the records are accessible online, only a small portion of the collection has been digitized. Some of this is due to their fragility, explained Karren; many are carbon copies of government correspondence on onionskin paper. In addition, many—particularly documents relocated from the Alaska National Archives, in Anchorage—contain personally identifiable information. Once in digital format, that data could be scraped and the information used illegally. Karren described a wealth of Tlingit and Haida tribal enrollment form applications with detailed family trees on the back—“Absolutely amazing stuff. And then we started looking closely at the forms and realized we can't do any of this” because many of the people identified are still alive.

NARA may be able to digitize a number of the records in the ensuing years, but moving them will still present significant barriers for those who need access—and the lack of a physical artifacts will impact users as well. “There's something very different between looking at something digitally and actually holding it in your hands,” said Karren. “The Chinese Exclusion Act case files are a prime example. People are looking at them and it's the first time, maybe, they knew this ancestor existed, or it's the first time they've ever seen a photo of this person, and they're realizing, 'That's my ancestor's signature, that's actually the ink that came out of the pen they were holding.' Which is really powerful.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor, News for Library Journal.

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Danette Layes

I hope that this will not happen. I do not think the board who implemented this realizes how BIG this archive is. I would hope the board implementing this, do not have such big heads and ideas that they can not see what a huge mistake it would be to move the Archive from the PNW.

Posted : Mar 10, 2020 10:36


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