Researchers Feel the Pinch Of National Archives Cuts

James Wilkins and Archives aide Jenny Guerro at the National Archives at College Park, where evenings have been cut back to two a month.
James Wilkins and Archives aide Jenny Guerro at the National Archives at College Park, where evenings have been cut back to two a month. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

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By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 11, 2006

The National Archives has drastically curtailed its evening and weekend hours, a move that will make life tougher for thousands of authors, historians and other researchers.

The Archives is the chief repository for federal records. Faced with rising costs, Chief Archivist Allen Weinstein and senior staff reduced the hours that research rooms are open by a third at both the Archives building on Pennsylvania Avenue NW and the massive Archives II center in College Park. The changes took effect Oct. 2.

Independent researcher Orah Hurst is one of those affected. She has spent a dozen years combing through the records of Navy ships for lawyers representing people who developed lung cancer after working with asbestos. Until last month she hired students and other freelancers to help dig through papers and copy essential documents during the Archives' evening hours.

"I had three people, sometimes four people, who worked in the [evening and weekend] hours. Now I don't have that," Hurst says.

Researchers who depend on the Archives for firsthand, intimate use of its billions of government records are also dismayed by a reduction in the number of times during the day that researchers can request materials. Most days, researchers can ask for documents four times. In the past, it was five.

Archives officials say they made the cuts to eliminate an anticipated $12 million budget gap created by rising expenses, including paying for heightened security requirements that were imposed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

In the past, the archives stayed open 60 hours a week. The original plan cut that to 40 hours, eliminating almost all evening and Saturday hours. After complaints from researchers, the archivists restored hours on Thursday and Friday evenings and all day Saturday on the third week of each month -- giving researchers 52 hours during those weeks. "It is pretty difficult for people who have jobs during the day and people who come from out of state and out of the country to use the Archives," says Susan Nusbaum Molye, the local representative of the Association of Professional Genealogists.

The Archives' managers said they wanted to avoid cutting hours and tried to balance the $283 million budget with a hiring freeze, an early retirement buyout and other cuts to avoid going into debt. But that wasn't enough.

In addition to cutting hours this fall, the Archives is trimming the number of specialized archivists who help researchers navigate the ocean of paper. Of the specialists helping researchers, seven archivists took early retirement and will not be replaced. Two others were temporarily reassigned.

"Access to specialized knowledge is being eroded by attrition and the hiring freeze. The traditional way the Archives transferred that knowledge is through an apprenticeship model. When you don't hire people, and you have people leaving and you have changed the logistics and you have limited access to particular archivists, that starts having an effect on us. There is a lot of informal knowledge at the Archives," says Brian W. Martin, executive vice president of History Associates, a firm that does historical research for litigation and other purposes.

Almost 45,000 people used original records and 15,000 used microfilm at both facilities in 2005.

Michael J. Kurtz, the assistant archivist for Records Services, says the new hours will not affect most research -- a 2005 survey found 77 percent of the work at the main building on Pennsylvania Avenue and in research rooms at College Park is done between 9 and 5 on weekdays. "Sixteen percent used evening hours and 7 percent used Saturdays," he said.


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