An Independent National Archives

April 1, 2016, marks the 31st anniversary of the National Archives independence. Today’s post come from Kaitlin Errickson of the National Archives History Office.

Original Seal of the National Archives, 1934. (National Archives Identifier 23856513)

The National Archives has a turbulent history.

First, the historical community had to fight for years and years to establish a National Archives.

Then Congress passed legislation authorizing an independent National Archives only to take that independence away 15 years later.

And finally, the National Archives became officially independent again on April 1, 1985.

After years of pressure from the historical community, Congress passed and President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation to create the National Archives as an independent agency on June 19, 1934.

However, in 1949, with goal of making the government more efficient, Congress transferred the National Archives to the newly created General Services Administration (GSA).

It was quite an odd combinationa cultural institution that stores, protects, and provides access to the nation’s most valuable historical records placed under a strictly administrative agency.

The National Archives became the National Archives and Records Service (NARS), a subordinate and a “service provided” under the GSA.

The relationship was not ideal. The work of the National Archives, headed by the Archivist of the United States, was and is not meant to be politically motivated. Yet the GSA, which did not have historical and archival expertise, made very politicized decisions for the National Archives.

Archivist Portraits
Sixth Archivist of the United States Robert Warner’s Portrait which hangs in the National Archives Building in Washington, DC. (Records of the National Archives)

During most of its time under the GSA, the National Archives fought unsuccessfully to be once again independent.

Things changed with appointment of Robert Warner, the Sixth U.S. Archivist (1980-85).

Warner was instrumental in gaining independence from GSA. He contacted members of Congress to encourage legislation giving back the National Archives’ independence.

In 1980, Senator Robert Morgan (D-NC) introduced the first bill for National Archives independence in the Senate. Unfortunately, the bill went nowhere. The following year, Senator Thomas Eagleton (D-MO) introduced a similar bill; again it went nowhere.

Finally, on March 23, 1983, Eagleton introduced S. 905, what would become the National Archives and Records Administration Act of 1984, proposing an independent National Archives and Records Administration.

Throughout the campaign, the National Archives received support from other agencies that argued for the importance of preserving and accessing government records.

S. 2852, Senator Morgan’s first attempt at securing an independent National Archives, June 19, 1980. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Two big supporters were the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History and the Coalition to Save Our Documentary Heritage. Other supporters included the American Historical Association, the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators, and the Society of American Archivists.

In addition, genealogists, educators, and other professionals lobbied on the National Archives’ behalf.

While all of this was occurring, Warner was holding secret meetings. A group of six dedicated staff members met regularly beginning in 1982, at first every couple of weeks and then daily near the end of the campaign. They met to discuss their strategy in regard to Congress, the press, other allied agencies, and anyone else who might help their cause.

It was vital for the Archivist and staff to be very careful because they also had to report to the GSA, which was unaware these meetings were taking place.

Other National Archives facilities, including the Lyndon B. Johnson and Gerald R. Ford Presidential Libraries, were involved in reaching out to key members of Congress.

The press also expressed its support for the National Archives. The New York Times, Washington Post, and newspapers printed articles that emphasized the importance of a fully functioning and independent National Archives.

Finally S. 905 began to get some traction in Congress. The Senate passed an amended version of the bill in June 1984. The bill then went to the House, where it was further amended.

Endorsement page of the House engrossed version of S. 905, An Act to establish the National Archives and Records Administration as an independent agency, October 4, 1984. (Records of the U.S. Senate)

During this time GSA officials had become angry and threatened to remove senior officials from the Archives. This actually helped the National Archives’ cause because many Members of Congress felt sympathy for the Archives.

Representative Frank Horton (R-NY), after he voiced his support for the bill, said, “The ‘shotgun marriage’ of housekeeping functions with a cultural activity has never worked, and the wonder to me in retrospect is why we have taken so long to recognize it.”

After resolving their differences in conference, the Senate approved S. 905 on October 3, 1984, with the House passing it the next day. It then went to President Ronald Reagan for his signature.

President Reagan was not completely sold on the bill, and it took some convincing from Senator Mark Hatfield (R-OR).

National Archives and Records Administration Act of 1984 October 19, 1984. (General Records of the U.S. Government, National Archives).

Senator Hatfield was vital to the conclusion of the independence campaign. In a meeting with Edwin Meese, special counsel to the President, he promised to support President Reagan’s fiscal legislation if, in exchange, the President supported and signed the National Archives independence bill.

President Reagan signed the bill into law on October 19, 1984, as Public Law 98-497.

In his signing statement President Reagan remarked, “The public papers and other materials that the Archives safeguards are precious and irreplaceable national treasures, and the agency that looks after the historical records of the Federal Government should be accorded a status that is commensurate with its important responsibilities. Independence for the Archives this year, in which we are commemorating the 50th anniversary of its creation, is a particularly fitting step, both practical and symbolic, in achieving that important goal.”

The purpose and importance of the National Archives was again finally recognized.

The National Archives won its independence from the GSA, but the law did not officially go into effect until April 1 of the next year.

National Archives Independence- NARA ndependence Act Ceremony 3_11-8-84
National Archives Staff gather in the Rotunda for the NARA Independence Act ceremony, November 8, 1984. (Records of the National Archives)

After its independence was guaranteed, the National Archives began making changes and preparations to be an efficient and independently functioning agency.

Archivist of the United States Robert Warner with the new official NARA seal, April 4, 1985.

On April 1, 1985, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) was officially established as an independent agency.

The National Archives gained its independence through the effort of many individuals, and especially Archivist Warner, who on April 1, 1985, stated, “Today is a great day for the National Archives. The proper preservation of the unique and accurate historical records of a nation is an issue of public policy which concerns every citizen. To operate effectively, the national record keeper of any country must have both independence and integrity. This new law will enable the National Archives of the United States to function with the organizational and administrative tools essential to its mission.”

NARA facilities around the country celebrated “Independence Day,” which is commemorated in photographs of staff either in front of or inside their buildings.

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4 thoughts on “An Independent National Archives

  1. I have been enjoying the recent posts about NARA’s history, particularly those that have featured many of the inspiring female archivists in whose steps I’m proud to follow!

    I am saddened that this post makes no mention of the critical role the staff of the National Archives, especially the National Archives Assembly (which saw its creation as result of the independence fight) played in gaining independence (although the mention of the six staff meting regularly might be a reference). Concerned professional staff met regularly after-hours and on weekends, often in each others’ homes, to develop plans and strategies for the independence fight – potentially putting their careers on the line. It was professional advocacy at its finest.

    I understand that space is limited on blogs and that this is really meant as an overview of a very complex, complicated issue but I don’t want our colleagues who fought so hard for independence to be forgotten. For a more in depth look at this issue, I encourage those who are interested to read Greg Bradsher’s article on the Society for History in the Federal Government’s website:

  2. It is also worth noting that Dr. Warner wrote a 204 page book on the topic, “Diary of a Dream: A History of the National Archives Independence Movement, 1980-1985,” (Scarecrow Press) 1995 available at the National Archives at College Park library.

  3. My father was instrumental in getting the archives freed out from underneath the GSA. He worked under Robert Warner and was one of the six people that met monthly in secret. He’s in the photographs his name was Dick Jacobs. He passed away April 6th 2018.

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