A recent National Archives audit, reported in an NBC news article Tuesday reveals that 80 percent of federal agencies are at risk of illegally destroying historical documents and the National Archives has an enormous backlog of materials in need of processing and preservation.
The report by the watchdog arm of Congress, completed this month after a year’s work and obtained by The Associated Press, also found many U.S. agencies do not follow proper procedures for disposing of public records.
Officials at the National Archives, which houses the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and other treasured documents at its Washington rotunda, had no immediate comment Tuesday on the findings.
The report comes more than a year after news reports of key items missing at the nation’s record-keeping agency. Some of the items have been missing for decades but their absence only became widely known in recent years.
The patent file for the Wright Brothers flying machine was last seen in 1980 after passing around multiple Archives offices, the Patents and Trademarks Office and the National Air and Space Museum.
This isn’t exactly a newsflash to professional archivists or genealogists. And while the reportage on the GAO audit is rather alarming, I think it’s worth it if it provides some visibility to (and adequate funding for) the issues facing the National Archives.
Tucked away in that article is the figure the National Archives has each year for operating 44 facilities, including 13 presidential libraries: $470 million. And that very very tiny number – especially when you consider the volume of material plus the new records being created every day – goes a long way in explaining some of those problems.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, requested the audits last year, alarmed at the “apparent lack of effective security.” He noted the loss of the Wright Brothers’ patent, the Clinton administration computer data with classified information, and lost maps from World War II.
“This agency is the country’s record keeper,” Grassley said in a statement Tuesday. “It’s responsible for protecting classified materials and for preserving our most important historical documents. … The agency needs to commit to fixing its problems and follow through.”
I wonder, from my perspective as a professional archivist, rather than that of a politician, if Sen. Grassley has ever voted or encouraged his colleagues to vote for an appropriation that matches the responsibilities given to the National Archives. It’s a fine thing to investigate, but pointless if the resources to correct deficiencies are not provided.
The GAO recommends in the National Archives audit that the agency boost its inspections of agencies, improve internal management, streamline hiring, and enhance security.
I hope they also recommend an increased appropriation make this happen. It isn’t like the archivists don’t know what to do. Most of the time, they just don’t have the resources to get it done.