Recently, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has begun an extensive analysis of its present and future needs for storage space in its regional archives system (see http://www.nara.gov/nara/spceplan.html). The governing Council of the Society of American Archivists (SAA), the oldest and largest archival organization in North America, has been monitoring the process being followed NARA for a number of reasons. NARA is the largest archival institution in the country, and as such its policies and practices often come to influence other archival repositories. In addition, many SAA members may be directly affected by changes in the NARA regional system. SAA also has a broad concern about the importance of user services to the overall purpose and welfare of archival institutions. Finally, the problems NARA faces are shared by many SAA members. A successful solution to NARA's space problems may prove to be of use to other SAA members.
Furthermore, there are fundamental problems with present space in NARA's regional facilities, as well as in the presidential libraries and the Archives on Pennsylvania Avenue, and we note that these problems are shared by many member SAA institutions. In particular, NARA lacks sufficient space needed to maintain all of the records for proper documentation of the federal government both presently and into the future. In addition, the environmental conditions in much of the space are reportedly significantly below minimal acceptable levels for archival materials.
At the same time, responsible financial management requires careful examination of how NARA might best achieve its space needs and fulfill its responsibilities to users and citizens throughout the country.
SAA Council believes that the matter of facilities for NARA throughout the country is an important issue needing careful deliberation. We appreciate that the current space study has emerged from the 1997 NARA Strategic Plan and are pleased to see further progress in the use of that plan to administer the Archives more strategically. To further this deliberation, we offer the following principles which we hope will be of use to NARA in its study:
1. Controversy is nearly unavoidable in such issues because they imply changes that may alter the services received by particular local constituencies in several separate locations throughout the country. Furthermore, aside from the general tendency of the American public to distrust the actions of a central government, there have been sufficient examples of missteps by NARA in recent decades to render several of its constituents dubious about the intentions of the space study. We greatly regret this erosion in trust, and we therefore bly encourage NARA to continue the open and careful deliberative process they have begun to ensure that such fears do not become justified. We commend NARA for initiating a formal and systematic study that includes a series of public hearings in the regional centers as a prominent element. At the same time, we encourage archivists and users throughout the country to engage in serious study of and deliberation on the space problem before rushing to take policy positions simply to defend the status quo.
2. In addition to the summer 1998 round of information-gathering hearings, NARA's public consultations should include a second round of hearings after specific recommendations have been developed in order to receive public comment on those recommendations before actions are taken to implement them.
3. In the development of recommendations, the following objectives and issues must be given serious consideration:
3.1 The plan should provide a realistic means of achieving an efficient and fiscally sound program for the use of space that incorporates objective measures of quality, quantity, accessibility, and public use of space.
3.2 To establish a rational baseline for the allocation of resources for archival storage facilities, the NARA study should include a rigorous cost-benefit assessment of all NARA storage facilities. It would be unfortunate if the space planning process focused only on regional archives when the costs associated with other storage facilities (in both rent, use, and staff efficiency) actually might be higher. Similar cost-benefit assessments should be employed for any proposed centralized alternatives.
3.3 Salient issues that arise from the summer 1998 hearings should also be addressed, for example, the desirability of bringing together related records that support use by specific communities and locations.
3.4 A primary consideration of the plan should be continued accessibility of archival materials to the current national and regional communities of NARA users and supporters.
3.5. NARA's public forums to date have demonstrated b local support for each of the regional archives. Large numbers of citizens, however, never take advantage of a regional archives facility because their distance from archives is too great. NARA space planning should assess the information needs of potential users as well as current users and try to ensure that as many citizens and government agencies as possible have "ready access to essential evidence." NARA may wish to consider situating facilities according to population, remove spatial anomalies (such as sending Virginia records to Philadelphia and not to a DC-area facility), and implement document-delivery programs and loan of NARA microfilm similar to services provided by many other information agencies. Electronic access may also be an option for the millions of citizens who have not been served by the current distribution of regional facilities.
3.6 The space plan will need to provide assurance to federal agencies of ready access to their records so that those agencies will continue to actively participate in the transfer of inactive federal records to NARA.
3.7 NARA should recognize that one of the great strengths of the current system is that it supports the special local knowledge that a regionally dispersed staff contributes to the appraisal of regional records and the ways in which such staff are well-positioned to provide reference support for records on topics of b local area interest. We urge NARA to ensure that this success is enhanced through whatever plan it adopts.
3.8 Although the impact of recommendations on specific sites is unavoidably a local issue affecting specific local constituencies, the space, facilities, preservation, and user-services problems faced by NARA are fundamentally national problems, which may require a system-based approach. We encourage all interested parties to consider the broad national issues before adopting specific positions on particular regional sites or on individual recommendations or options available to NARA.
3.9 Regardless of the content of specific recommendations from the study, addressing the issues of the quantity and quality of space will require significant additional federal funding. NARA should not hesitate to develop and promote realistic funding requests to Congress. Even if the immediate prospects for sufficient funding to initiate a new space program are limited, the pursuit of funding, perhaps for a phased implementation, is essential. The existing space situation is obviously so problematic as to render it impossible for NARA to meet its national responsibilities simply by reallocating existing resources.
3.10 Archivists, historians, public users, and local political constituencies should be prepared to actively support new NARA funding requests through all appropriate means for contacting legislators and government officials.
3.11 NARA should look to how it might capitalize on the enormous good will that has been expressed in public meetings to date concerning the value of archives, the quality of NARA's archival staff and services, and the desire of the public to use archival materials.
3.12 At the same time, NARA must be exceedingly careful in the process it follows for studying the issues, developing recommendations, sharing the recommendations with the public, and making and implementing the final decisions. Due process, careful deliberation, and open communication will be essential for the process to be a shared venture of administrators, archivists, and users aimed at greater support for more adequate quality facilities and services.
SAA Council stands ready to provide whatever facilitation it can offer to encourage the due consideration of all issues relevant to supplying the public with ready access to NARA holdings and to securing sufficient quality space for NARA.