Today’s post comes from Jessie Kratz, Historian of the National Archives. June 19 marks the 80th Anniversary of the establishment of the National Archives.
Eighty years ago on June 19, 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation creating the National Archives. It was the culmination of a 25-year campaign by the historical community to create a National Archives building to house the national government’s records.
At that time, Federal records were scattered around the Washington area in inadequate and unsuitable storage facilities. They were neither organized nor accessible for public use.
Supporters of a National Archives argued that those records—the written evidence of our national life and achievements—must be preserved for future generations.
In 1926, Congress took the first major step in creating a home for the nation’s records by authorizing construction of an Archives building. It was part of a massive public buildings project to provide office space for government agencies in the Federal Triangle area of downtown Washington, DC.
The Archives building was well under way before Congress created the agency that would occupy it.
An April 1934 House Report on the bill to establish the National Archives described the situation:
The great National Archives Building on Constitution and Pennsylvania Avenues is nearing competition. The interior arrangement of shelf space, equipment, etc., providing for the custody of Government documents, is ready for consideration. Legislation governing the future administration of the national archives and the appointment of an archivist to cooperate with the architects if therefore much to be desired at the present time.
The bill passed on June 18, 1934, the final day of the legislative session. President Roosevelt signed it the next day.
The legislation created the Office of the Archivist of the United States to be appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, and stipulated the Archivist would receive an annual salary of $10,000.
The act also allowed the Archivist to appoint staff without regard to civil service law, although any employee making more than $5,000 a year needed to be appointed by the President and have Senate approval.
Other provisions allowed the Archivist to take control of all records of the government—legislative, executive, judicial, and other—and gave the Archivist power to inspect records of any agency and arrange for their transfer to the National Archives.
Finally, the act put the National Archives Building into the immediate custody of the Archivist.
On October 10, 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt nominated Robert D.W. Connor to be the first Archivist of the United States. Connor immediately began the difficult task of creating the brand new agency.