President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation establishing the National Archives as an independent agency on June 19, 1934, which is our agency’s official “birthday.” But, we also celebrate April 1, 1985, as our “other birthday.” Why? Read on.
Although the National Archives was created as an independent agency, Congress transferred it to the newly created General Services Administration (GSA) in 1949. And the National Archives became the National Archives and Records Service (NARS).
The National Archives and GSA did not have compatible missions—the National Archives stored and preserved Federal government records of enduring value, and advocated for scholarly research of those records. GSA was created to streamline the administrative functions of government, and manage public buildings and property.
From the very beginning the historical and archival communities questioned the wisdom of placing our nation’s documentary heritage in the hands of those who are also, as one Senator put it, “the custodian of washrooms, storerooms, and workrooms.”
The National Archives struggled during its GSA years. Worse yet, historical records were jeopardized—the people in charge of making decisions about our nation’s most precious documents had no experience in history or archives whatsoever. Moreover, archival decision-making became more politicized, putting the historical record at risk.
Throughout the GSA years the archival and historical community made several calls for an independent National Archives, but real progress was finally made under Robert Warner, the sixth Archivist of the United States (1980-1985). Warner made it his mission to gain independence for the National Archives.
Warner, with the help of concerned citizens, professional organizations, and dedicated staff within the agency, convinced Congress to pass legislation making the National Archives independent once again.
On October 19, 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed the legislation reestablishing the National Archives as an independent agency within the executive branch of government.
And on April 1, 1985, the National Archives and Records Act of 1984 went into effect, and the National Archives and Records Administration became an independent agency.
Happy “other” birthday, National Archives!
Read more about how we gained our independence in former Archivist of the United States John Carlin’s Prologue article.