While most of the world is using fourth- and fifth-generation advanced technology, the city’s archives are locked in the analog era, unable, for example, to even receive or store electronic records. The place where the city’s history is stored also lacks adequate temperature and humidity controls. The security and staffing are insufficient. Space is so scarce that some materials are being housed in Maryland and Virginia.
“And the city Council records on video, who’s taking care of that?” asked Trudy Peterson, co-chairperson of the newly formed Friends of the D.C. Archives. She noted that, within six months, floor proceedings in the House and Senate are transferred to the Library of Congress and the National Archives. “What is the equivalent in the District?”
Equally important: What happens to the personal papers of D.C. mayors and council members? Do they belong to the city or to the elected official?
A former head of the National Archives, Peterson has helped established archival facilities and programs around the world, including in Budapest, Guatemala and the Marshall Islands. “Compared to other capital cities around the world,” she said, “we don’t shape up.”
Far beyond the genealogical information often associated with archives, the District has a repository that contains about 45 miles of documents and records, said Peterson. This includes information about the owners of homes; when schools may have been built; and the original intent of laws passed by the local government or business relationships. Why, for example, does CSX run through the city?
Former mayor Anthony A. Williams may have been the first D.C. official to recognize the importance and value of such information. He proposed renovating the facility on Naylor Court NW. His successor, Adrian M. Fenty, redirected the funds that had been appropriated, according to D.C. Secretary Cynthia Brock-Smith, who supervises the operation. In 2013, Mayor Vincent C. Gray restored the money. But the $44 million allotment is based on the original — not a current — assessment of needs and is chiefly for a building, Brock-Smith said.
Promising to rescue and help restore the long-neglected facility, Peterson and more than a dozen others, including individuals affiliated with the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., the Society of American Archivists, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference, the National Archives and George Washington University, met last week, creating their “friends” group. They aren’t simply interested in the building, however. They also are concerned about programs, staffing and conducting a survey and assessment of the condition of records.
These aren’t nerdy busybodies, preoccupied with old documents and ancient photographs. “Archives are fundamental to democracy, accountability and good governance,” said Peterson, whose work often focuses on justice and human rights.
The District’s archival files tell its cultural narrative. They recount the city’s mission; the creation of its neighborhoods; and the rise and fall and rise again of its families and its communities. They chronicle the District’s political struggles, serving as guide for others who may take up the cause. They celebrate the city’s hard-fought diversity, helping generations that follow to better appreciate who they are.
When I arrived in the District more than 25 years ago, I was eager to know and understand the city — not the government but residents, ordinary and extraordinary. I was particularly interested in the creative writers who had lived here and what their history might tell me about whether I could thrive in the nation’s capital. I found myself traveling to the Washingtoniana division of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, Howard University’s Afro-American Resource Center and the Library of Congress, among other places. The city’s archives was not a researcher’s delight.
Brock-Smith doesn’t dispute that it has been neglected: “Over the years, when the District suffered budget issues, the investment was not made. We need to develop a vision for a 21st-century archives.” She said a consultant, Gregory Hunter, has been hired to help begin that process. She has also created an advisory committee; some of its members are part of the Friends of the D.C. Archives.
“Once the vision is in place, that will help guide future budget submissions,” continued Brock-Smith, adding that she expects to meet within the next week with each of the citizens groups while beginning talks around the architectural and engineering needs for a new facility.
“We will be moving forward with all deliberate speed,” she added. “I am confident this will work this time.”
I am less sanguine. She is a political appointee, destined to exit when Gray does. “I plan to stay involved with the stakeholders,” Brock-Smith countered. “I am a native Washingtonian. This is my history. I want to be sure it’s preserved and showcased.”
But how many others in the D.C. government want the same thing? That’s the rub, isn’t it?
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