After all these years, the District of Columbia is getting its own archives -- or, to be bureaucratically more precise and stuffy, its Office of Public Records.
To mark the creation, which is more important than it may sound, a reception was held Thursday evening in the formal reception parlor of the National Archives building. The two guests of honor didn't show up: Mayor Marion Barry, marking his 50th birthday that day and apparently pressed for time, and Clifton B. Smith, the secretary of the District (our town's secretary of state), sidelined with the flu.
Although the District has existed since 1790 and functioned governmentally in one way or another since 1800, it never has had its own central repository of documents. Those in the public domain, other than the ones in the District Building's current files, are either at the Library of Congress or in the National Archives. What we're talking about here is a vast array of laws, reports, land and tax records and documents from the past that are the foundation for the present and future.
The effort to create the local archives dates from 1953, under the old commissioner form of government, but by 1982 it had petered out. In 1983, the city commissioned James B. Rhoads, the former archivist of the United States, to survey District records and make recommendations for their preservation and use. Last year, after receiving his report, the City Council enacted legislation creating the city agency.
It will be headed by Philip W. Ogilvie, in my view the perfect choice for the job -- a scholarly, low-key man devoted to the task who is close enough to the mayor to ensure support for the mission. Now heading a staff of seven, he said he regards the new task as "truly exciting." His office will soon be moved to the Recorder of Deeds Building, Sixth and D streets NW.
And some further good news: The National Archives has agreed to transfer its collection of District documents when the D.C. Archives is set up to receive them. To store the documents securely, Ogilvie said, the city is rehabilitating a concrete barn near the old D.C. Library on Mount Vernon Square, erected around the turn of the century to stable horses used for street cleaning.