Working in the National Archives: Caves

Entrance to the National Archives in Lee's Summit, Missouri

Today’s guest post is by Dana Roark, archives technician at the Lee’s Summit Federal Records Center.

One of the most vivid memories I have of my first day at Lee’s Summit, a? National Archives facility, was the drive in to my new workplace. As I rounded the corner of the driveway, I came face-to-face with the yawning black mouth of a limestone mine.

As you can imagine, I was a little intimidated as I slowly drove in. I was even more intimidated when I was first taken out into the stacks. I spent the first month (at least!) getting lost as I tried to navigate through the labyrinth of huge rooms. Thank goodness my supervisor took pity on me and drew me a map, or I would have never made it out of the office!

I am a Missouri girl from St. Louis and DeSoto,  a little town about an hour south of St. Louis. Missouri is known as the “cave state.” With over 4,500 known wild or natural caves, it has more caves than any other state.  We even had a cave in my backyard when I was growing up. It had been a favorite spot to sit reading during the summer and enjoying the natural air conditioning. I’d also done regular cave tours as a child for girl scouts, summer camp, and field trips. So I was used to and comfortable in caves. But I was completely unaware of the vast network of industrial caves in the Kansas City area, and I had no idea what it’d be like to work in one.

Kansas City first started using limestone mines for storage and business facilities in the 1950s. Lee’s Summit first opened in August 1997, under the direction of John Allshouse. It was the first underground facility for the National Archives.

Elaine Christopher, my supervisor, was the first one assigned to the new facility and the first supervisor. “At first there was just so much going on. It was new, it was challenging, it was hard work, and it was a lot of long days,” she said, when I asked her what it had been like to be a National Archives pioneer in underground storage.

Caves in Lee's Summit before shelving was installed.

The underground facility that started in 1997 with just one room has now grown to over 3.66 million cubic feet of boxes and 82,000 square feet of administrative space, in a total of 16 rooms. The National Archives has also expanded to two other underground facilities in Lenexa and Valmeyer, IL. This year, they plan on opening a fourth underground facility in Kansas City’s largest underground business facility, which also houses an underground paintball/laser tag course and the country’s only underground 5/10k/marathon.

The underground storage has been good for the National Archives. Because the temperature stays 70 degrees year around, it is considered “green storage” and cuts energy use by around 30 percent. Underground storage is also cheap compared to aboveground storage. This makes it perfect to provide large amounts of cost-effective space to store documents.

The question that I am asked the most is what is it like to work underground?

Well, it has its benefits and its drawbacks. For one, I never have to clean off my car in the winter or worry about my car being too hot in the summer since I park underground. Last year, during tornado season, I was very glad I worked in a cave when a tornado touched down only a few miles away. No matter what it is doing outside, it is always around 70 degrees in the caves, which I am very thankful for during the sweltering summers we have here in Missouri.

There are a few drawbacks, though. During the winter, I feel like a vampire. When I drive into the cave in the morning, it’s dark; and when I drive out, it’s dark again. That can be a little depressing. The traffic in the cave can be irritating to say the least. Imagine driving on a poorly lit road that’s barely big enough for one car, where there are rock pillars on both sides of you, and a semi-truck headed towards you! The dust and rocks can also be a problem. Once a week, I have to dust off my desk because it’s covered with debris from the ceiling. The dust can also cause havoc with fax machines, keyboards, and printers.

All in all, though, I enjoy working in a cave!

Learn more about the Federal Records Center at Lee’s Summit, MO.

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