America is losing its memory. The National Archives and Records Administration is in a budget crisis. More than a resource for historians or museum of founding documents, NARA stands at the heart of American democracy. It keeps the accounts of our struggles and triumphs, allows the people to learn what their government has done and is doing and it maintains records that fill in family histories. Genealogy researchers depend on it, as do journalists filing Freedom of Information Act requests. If Congress doesn’t save it, we all will suffer.
The National Archives tells us who we are, at our best and our worst. In its holdings, biographer Jonathan Eig found a letter written by the imprisoned Al Capone, apologizing for bringing shame on his family. I discovered an assistant provost marshal’s report, recommending the banishment of Frank and Jesse James’ parents from Missouri during the Civil War; it cited the brothers’ participation in atrocities as Confederate guerrillas with the full support of their mother, “one of the worst women in this state.” Journalist and author David Maraniss uncovered a statement from his own father in the files of the House Un-American Activities Committee. And researchers continue to find gems in the Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson tapes.
An encounter with a record at NARA can be profound, even when its content is well known. When poring through the contentious argument over whether President Theodore Roosevelt deserved a Medal of Honor for service in the Spanish-American War, I came across the original recommendation, written on a torn scrap of paper by Leonard Wood while in the trenches outside Santiago, Cuba. It overwhelmed me. The preservation of physical documents, even in our digital age, remains an essential mission.
Just as important, NARA provides a priceless resource for family history. Angela Walton-Raji began her path to becoming an authority on black genealogy in the National Archives. There, she discovered that her great-grandmother Sallie Walton, whom Walton-Raji knew as a child, had been enslaved by a member of the Choctaw Nation. The records revealed unknown ancestors to her and took her into the complex, interwoven history of Native and blacks in what is now Oklahoma.
Every American can go to the National Archives and get direct access to our past and present. And everyone suffers from the failure to pay what it costs to maintain it. In fiscal 2010, Congress granted NARA $475 million, for example. The next year, it cut the appropriation to $420 million. The appropriation for 2018 was $403.2 million. For 2020, the Trump administration is asking for $358 million. Such repeated, harsh reductions are even worse when adjusted for inflation.
Even as appropriations decline, the workload increases. Already NARA facilities are near full capacity for record storage, holding some 4.5 million cubic feet. Yet more files arrive annually, with as much as 2.5 million cubic feet of “permanently valuable, historical records” expected over the next 14 years.
Selecting and preserving these records demand countless hours of expert labor. Some records need special care; all must be identified and catalogued; security and privacy concerns require diligent attention. On top of that, NARA has been asked to digitize those existing paper records. In 2018, it lagged nearly 12 million pages behind its goal of making 65 million available online — in itself a small fraction of its total holdings.
The fiscal constriction shows at the scores of facilities where the public accesses federal records. NARA maintains more than a dozen presidential libraries, 13 federal records centers, 11 regional facilities and two personnel records centers, not to mention two central locations in College Park, Maryland, and Washington. Recent years have seen visitor hours restricted, new fees levied and a shrinking workforce.
That staff consists of dedicated professionals. I’ve worked with many of them personally, from rank-and-file archivists to the agency’s nonpartisan leadership, and I have great confidence in them. (I spoke to no one at NARA about this essay.) But only so much can be accomplished with a shrinking budget. In 2017, an employee survey found that 73 percent agreed that “my agency is successful at accomplishing its mission.” In 2018, that figure declined to 66 percent, an alarming level for such a critical body.
We owe it to ourselves to substantially increase funding for the keepers of our national memory. No financial interest or large popular pressure group lobbies on NARA’s behalf. Its constituency is all of us — and every American to come. If we lose touch with who we have been, what we have endured and how we have argued, the United States will stand for nothing at all.
T.J. Stiles is a member of the governing boards of the Society of American Historians and the Organization of American Historians. He received the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for History, the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Biography and the 2009 National Book Award for Nonfiction. This column was originally published by The Washington Post.