Survey of Federal Records

Continuing our celebration of American Archives Month, today’s post comes from Tom Ryan, an intern in the National Archives History Office.

Photograph of storage conditions of the Office of Indian Affairs records, 1935.  (Records of the National Archives)

Photograph of storage conditions of the Office of Indian Affairs records, 1935.
(Records of the National Archives, RG 64)

Do you ever wonder where records were stored before the National Archives was created in 1934?

Before 1934, the Federal Government lacked a uniform manner to handle its records. Congress enacted legislation requiring each Government agency to keep its own records and gave the State Department responsibility for most archival duties.

In 1934, Congress passed legislation creating the National Archives which also created the office of the Archivist of the United States.

The new Archivist’s first step was to determine which of the older Federal records the Archives would accession (take legal and physical custody).

The National Archives Act also created the National Archives Council, whose primary duties were advising the Archivist in determining which documents should be included in the Archives.

The council was chaired by Secretary of State Cordell Hull. In a speech to the council, Hull declared: “We should approach our duty in a manner that will save us from allowing this vastly important work to become routine.”

In the early days, the process of collecting government records was anything but routine. Before the council could establish rules regarding the acquisition of records, it was first necessary to survey existing Federal records from all over the United States.

The National Archives Division of Accessions took responsibility for surveying records in the Washington metro area; the Works Progress Administration (WPA)—a New Deal program—took over the task of surveying records outside of Washington, DC.

Photograph of poor record storage conditions in the White House Garage, 1935. (Records of the National Archives)

Photograph of poor record storage conditions in the White House Garage, 1935.
(Records of the National Archives, RG 64)

Archives staff in Washington surveyed 5,157,019 linear feet of documents. Of these, 40.61 percent were stored in areas exposed to hazards of fire; 43.89 percent were exposed to dirt; 8.9 percent were stored in the damp conditions; and 5.12 percent were infested with insects or vermin.

Overall, 55 percent of the records were kept in unsuitable storage conditions.

Particularly egregious was the condition of War Department files in the White House garage. Such conditions demonstrated the dire need for a National Archives.

Around the country, WPA workers surveyed the records. These workers were previously unemployed citizens from the states they were assigned to survey.

While they often worked under unfavorable conditions, the surveyors also found their jobs were an adventure. For example, Arizona WPA workers traveled on horseback where there were no roads in order to survey the records of the Supai Indian reservation.

Works Progress Administration surveyors inspecting records storage conditions in Massachusetts, 1936. (Records of the Work Projects Administration)

Works Progress Administration surveyors inspect records storage conditions in Massachusetts, 1936. (Records of the Work Projects Administration, RG 69)

Elsewhere, WPA staff faced heat in excess of 116 degrees Fahrenheit. When records surveyors were not braving hail and dust storms in Colorado, they were facing moldy rodent-infested, dungeon-like rooms never meant for storage in New England.

In one southern city, WPA workers found the employee in charge of the records room was using it to breed pigeons. To even begin to survey, the holdings workers had to spend four weeks cleaning up pigeon feathers and droppings.

Through their hard work, the surveyors were able uncover many items of lasting importance to the country.

WPA staff examined the records of more than 7,000 agencies located in over 5,000 buildings across the nation comprising more than 2,000,000 linear feet of records. If one were to set out all the surveyed records in a line, it would stretch about 380 miles.

Works Progress Administration report on the condition of records storage rooms ca.1936. (Records of the Work Projects Administration)

Works Progress Administration report on the condition of records storage rooms ca.1936. (Records of the Work Projects Administration,RG 64)

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One Response to Survey of Federal Records

  1. Luke Sprague says:

    Unbelievable pictures, in some ways it is a miracle we can find anything today. I have to say my hat is off to these early archivists!

    Like

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