The National Archives Council

October is American Archives Month, and we’re looking at moments in National Archives history that shed light on the importance of archives. Today’s post comes from Callie Belback from the National Archives History Office.

Before 1934 and the creation of the National Archives, the U.S. Government lacked an adequate way to store all the records it produced. Congress required that each government agency handle its own records and tasked the State Department with fulfilling archival duties along with managing foreign policy and international relations. 

This system was not sustainable, and there wasn’t agreement over what kind of central records depository the U.S. Government should have, with several opinions developing over time. The first was that a national archives should only house rare documents of outstanding historical interest. The second maintained that there needed to be a Hall of Records with space assigned to each agency to house both their active and inactive records. The third, championed most by historians, archivists, and scholars, argued that all records created by government agencies were eligible to be stored in the National Archives.

On June 19, 1934, Congress passed legislation creating the National Archives. This legislation also created the National Archives Council. The Council was composed of the secretary of each of the executive departments of the government, the chair of the Senate Committee on the Library, the chair of the House committee on the Library, the Librarian of Congress, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and the Archivist of the United States.

The Council’s duties were to advise the Archivist of the United States in determining which documents should be accessioned into the National Archives and which should be destroyed, as well as establishing regulations governing document transfer from the various government agencies to the National Archives.

At the call of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the first Council meeting occurred on December 27, 1935, in the cabinet room at the White House. The Council elected its officers: Secretary of State Cordell Hull as Chairman, Archivist of the United States Robert D.W. Connor as Vice Chairman, and Administrative Secretary of the National Archives Thad Page as secretary.

Once the Council was organized, its opening session was held two months later, on February 10, 1936, in the National Archives Building conference room. Secretary Hull addressed the attendees. He stated that this first meeting was an “occasion of historical significance” and that their duty was to “lay down the policies which are to guide in the preservation of the priceless records of the American government.” The policies would affect the “accumulated stories of the past” as well as the records that will accrue for generations to come. 

Opening session of the National Archives Council, 2/10/1936. (National Archives Identifier 12056)

Hull underlined the Council’s duty to approach their tasks in a manner that “will save us from allowing this vastly important work to become routine” and to do so with respect and reverence. Hull also acknowledged the importance of the National Archives in maintaining the American ideals of democracy. He stated that the National Archives was the “home of history” and that the Council was to ensure the “success for all time of the National Archives establishment.” 

During this meeting, the Council addressed the problem of too little space in the National Archives Building to house all the government records. In order to properly store all the important records, the Council determined the criteria for the documents worth accessioning and preserving. 

The Council declared the following in regard to the main class of records that were subject to accessioning:

  • I: Any archives or records (a) which the head of the agency in custody of them may deem not to be necessary for the use in the conduct of the regular current business of said agency; (b) any material which the head of the agency may consider to be in such physical condition that they cannot be used without danger of damage to them; and (c) any material that the head of the agency is unable to provide adequate safe storage.
  • II: Any archives or records of any federal agency that has gone out of existence unless its functions have been transferred to the agency which has custody of its records.
  • III: Any other archives or records which the National Archives Council by special resolution or which the head of the agency in custody of them for special reasons, may authorize to be transferred to the National Archives. 

After outlining the foundational regulations of the National Archives and determining the first accessioned collections, the National Archives Council wasn’t very active. In 1949, when the National Archives became a part of the General Services Administration (GSA), the Council was abolished. A Federal Records Council, composed of representatives of the three branches of government, was to be the advisory body to the GSA Administrator.

In 1985, Congress passed the National Archives and Records Administration act making the National Archives an independent agency once again. Today, National Archives staff specializing in accessioning and records management work with federal agencies ensure the nation’s permanently valuable records are transferred to the National Archives.

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