Spotlight on Advocacy and Awareness: The Impending Closure of the National Archives at Seattle

Hallel Yadin

It was announced in January 2020 that the National Archives at Seattle would close.

The fate of the millions of records it stewards remains unclear. Only a small fraction have been digitized, and there is slim hope of mass digitization [1] occurring before the building is sold and the materials are shipped off to facilities in California and Missouri.

The closure was recommended by the Public Buildings Reform Board (PBRB), a recently-established independent agency which identifies “opportunities for the Federal government to significantly reduce its inventory of civilian real property and thereby reduce costs.”[2] It assesses the federal government’s real estate holdings and recommends high-value buildings (worth between $500 and $750 million) to sell to private real estate investors.

The recommendations go to the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which can formally accept them or not.

The PBRB notes that the building runs $356,763 annually in operations costs, is sitting on just under $2.5 million in deferred maintenance costs, and can be expected to cost another $2.3 million in future capital expenditures. The report does not note how much the transfer of the records can be expected to cost, or whether the addition of Seattle’s records to other facilities will increase their operating expenditures.

The building also sits on ten acres of land. The PBRB’s recommendation is to use these acres for residential housing: it is “anticipated that there will be substantial interest from the developer community.”[3] No doubt there will be substantial interest from the brokerage firm community as well, given that the board recommends the use of a private brokerage firm to “manage the marketing and sale of this property in such a manner as to maximize its value for the Government.”

Community Impact

Archives are the heart of so much research not just in history, but in the humanities and social sciences overall. Access to repositories is already contingent on limited travel and research funds, and moving archives from where they are most likely to be used simply exacerbates existing limitations. And beyond their academic uses, archives have immense value for individuals, especially when it comes to cultural heritage and genealogy research.

The impact of the loss of access to these historic records will be significant for the Northwest. The National Archives at Seattle hold invaluable records,[4] including Chinese Exclusion Act case files and century-old national forest records to records that help the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determine who is responsible for environmental clean-up sites.

The loss of these records will be felt particularly acutely by indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest. The records are “in regular use[5] by members of 272 federally-recognized tribes to determine and establish proof of tribal citizenship. David Z. Bean, Chairman of the Pullyap Tribe, wrote a letter [6] opposing the closure of the National Archives at Seattle. He notes that the office “houses critical documents associated with litigation that document the Tribe’s effort to protect our treaty rights and territory.” Jeremy Sullivan, Chairman of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, wrote a similar letter arguing that the sale of the National Archives building would have a “profound, negative and irreparable impact” on tribes in the region.

This sentiment was thrown into sharp relief when Lana Jack, a member of the unrecognized Wyam tribe, staged a one-woman protest separate from a larger protest that took place outside of the NARA building this past February. Native peoples, she said, “were taken out of their longhouses and put in the files.” [7] These files — the treaties, the population records, the genealogies — comprise “the legal architecture governing much of who has rights, who doesn’t, who exists and who doesn’t.” The documents in the archive essentially are physical proof of tribes’ and Natives’ hard-won right to simply exist. Jack continued, “The U.S. government made us paper Indians — our ancestors are here.”

Furthermore, Alaskan Natives and other Alaskan stakeholders are feeling “twice burned[8]. The National Archives outpost in Alaska had been shut down in 2014 and most of their records, save 5,000 boxes that were transferred to the state,[9] were sent to Seattle. Now, those materials will be even less accessible.

Although they may not be widely understood as such, the National Archives are a critical part of America’s national infrastructure. The Seattle NARA closure is just the latest contraction of this government function, which has been pushed aside and underfunded for years.[10]

The targeting of a major National Archives building for closure in a campaign to privatize government buildings is worrisome. The National Archives at Seattle are not the only sites that have been recommended for sale. The other buildings in the final recommendation [11] include:

● Sacramento Jobs Corps Center (excess land only), Sacramento, CA

● Information Operations and Research Center, Idaho Falls, Idaho

● Southwest Fisheries Science Center, Pacific Grove, CA

● Edison Job Corps Center (excess land only), Edison, NJ

● Veterans Affairs Denver Medical Center (partial disposition), Denver, CO

● Ronald Reagan Federal Building and Courthouse, Harrisburg, PA

● Auburn Complex, Auburn, WA

● Menlo Park Complex, Menlo Park, CA

● Chet Holifield Federal Building, Laguna Niguel, CA

● Nike Site, Gaithersburg, MD

● WestEd Office Building, Los Alamitos, CA

These sites represent a mix of Department of Labor, Department of Energy, Department of Commerce, Department of Veterans Affairs, General Services Administration, Department of Education, and Department of Corrections buildings. While the long-term impact of these sales, if they are finalized, cannot be known, it is a reasonable prediction that their ability to function will ultimately be diminished.

A related issue is the lack of community stakeholder input [12] in the decision to sell the NARA building. The decision was made with little consultation with stakeholders. Local politicians, tribes, state archivists, community members — none were consulted before the recommendation was made official. Even U.S. Congresspeople [13] were not aware, and, in fact, the majority of representatives of the affected states signed a letter arguing that the selection process was “flawed” and that the move would ultimately have detrimental impacts. (One exception is U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal, whose district includes the land in question. She notes that her office did receive word of the potential closure in November [14] and offered to help with public outreach, but that the PBRB never followed up.)

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who has sued the federal government a number of times, threatened to sue over the decision when it was first announced. Even with the coronavirus crisis ongoing, the office is hoping the federal government responds positively to a proposed compromise [15] that would keep the records in the Pacific Northwest, even if the Seattle facility is sold.

This is not the only ongoing case of the federal government restricting public access to records (see: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement being sued for destroying detainee records)[16]. Our records are our history, and they are worth fighting for.

Action Steps

The Advocacy Committee of the Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan New York (ART) will be closely following the impending closure of the National Archives at Seattle and will continue to advocate for either a reversal of the closure or for the records housed there to remain in an accessible location in the Pacific Northwest. We will keep the ART community updated on news and actions regarding the closure.

[1] Banel, Feliks. “Expert: It would take hundreds of years to digitize records at Seattle National Archives.” MyNorthwest. February 26, 2020. https://mynorthwest.com/1736786/seattle-national-archives-records-digitization/

[2] Public Buildings Reform Board. Accessed May 7, 2020. https://www.pbrb.gov/

[3] “High Value Assets Report as required by FASTA.” Public Buildings Reform Board. December 27, 2019. https://tinyurl.com/y8wjxodw

[4] Peet, Lisa. “Seattle National Archives threatened with closure.” Library Journal. March 4, 2020. https://www.libraryjournal.com/?detailStory=seattle-national-archives-threatened-with-closure

[5] Peet, Lisa. “Seattle National Archives threatened with closure.”

[6] Letters in opposition of the Public Buildings Reform Board’s recommendation to close and sell the National Archives at Seattle written by David Z. Bean, Chairman of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians and by Jeremy Sullivan, Chairman of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, January 23, 2020. Accessed May 7, 2020. https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/6671516-National-Archives-Puyallup-and-Port-Gamble.html

[7] Berger, Knute. “Closing Seattle’s National Archives is a ‘paper genocide’ for some Natives.” Crosscut. February 21, 2020. https://crosscut.com/2020/02/closing-seattles-national-archives-paper-genocide-some-natives

[8] Banel, Feliks. “Officials, historians slam ‘horrendous’ plan to close Seattle National Archives.” MyNorthwest. January 22, 2020.

https://mynorthwest.com/1680107/officials-historians-seattle-national-archives-closure-horrendous/?

[9] Jenkins, Elizabeth. “‘Much of Alaska’s history is not here anymore’: The National Archives are moving again, this time even farther away.” Alaska Public Media. February 20, 2020. https://www.alaskapublic.org/2020/02/20/much-of-alaskas-history-is-not-here-anymore-the-national-archives-are-moving-again-this-time-even-farther-away/

[10] Stiles, T.J. “America is losing its memory.” Washington Post. May 7, 2029. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/america-is-losing-its-memory/2019/05/07/28f8eb80-6ddd-11e9-be3a-33217240a539_story.html

[11] “High Value Assets Report as required by FASTA.” Public Buildings Reform Board. December 27, 2019. https://tinyurl.com/y8wjxodw

[12] Banel, Feliks. “Officials, historians slam ‘horrendous’ plan to close Seattle National Archives.” MyNorthwest. January 22, 2020.

https://mynorthwest.com/1680107/officials-historians-seattle-national-archives-closure-horrendous/?

[13] Letter written by members of the United States Congress to Russell Vought, Acting Director of the United States Office of Management and Budget, regarding the Public Buildings Reform Board’s recommendation to close and sell the National Archives at Seattle, January 24, 2020. https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/6672233-NAtional-Archives-Senators-Letter-New.html

[14] Pentheroudakis, Joseph. “Pacific Region archives in Seattle to close.” Key Peninsula News. March 27, 2020. https://keypennews.com/pacific-region-archives-in-seattle-to-close/

[15] Banel, Feliks. “State AG Ferguson seeks compromise on Seattle National Archives closure.” MyNorthwest. March 24, 2020. https://mynorthwest.com/1784267/ferguson-national-archives-closure-compromise/

[16] “Lawsuit: ICE must not destroy detainee records.” Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. March 16, 2020. https://www.citizensforethics.org/press-release/ice-records-destruction-lawsuit/

Hallel Yadin is Archives Associate at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. She is a member of the ART Advocacy Committee.

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