In 1919, America’s most important governmental and historical papers were stored haphazardly and dangerously.
[There are] a hundred different places in Washington in which valuable Government papers are stored. In this situation Washington stands alone among the capitals of the world. All other countries of importance have their archives concentrated in a special building furnished with every possible protection against loss by fire or deterioration.
There appeared little appetite for something similar in the U.S., though.
The agitation for a national archive building began in the seventies of the last century [1870s]. Fifty different archives bills have been introduced. Two got by the Senate, but not one past the House. Meantime a site was authorized and purchased, but on account of the long delay — while pork-barrel measures were attended to regularly — the site was used for another building.
It wasn’t that people were opposed, per se, but rather that it was low on the list of importance.
On the whole no other Congressional neglect furnishes a parallel to this one, for there never has been any organized opposition to the idea; it was generally admitted to be a sound one, even by members who did not apprehend its high importance, but after all it was a rather vague need.
But World War I drastically increased the need.
The war, it is estimated, will double all the papers that had been accumulated by the country up to 1917. Records include not only those of the army and navy and other regular departments, but of special activities, such as the Food Administration, the Fuel Administration, the Railroad Administration, and War Industries Board.
After all, the physical conditions were subject to great risk.
At present the greater part of the Government’s archives are stores in the two worst places to prevent them from deterioration: in attics and in cellars. To preserve papers under the best conditions requires an even temperature, light, and an absence of excessive moisture. In the attics the papers are subjected to a terrific heat in the Summer time, so great that spontaneous combustion has been feared.
The National Archives would be created by Congress 15 years after this article, in 1934. The actually transfer of records to the new National Archives building began in 1936.
And what a collection it is. From their website:
There are approximately 10 billion pages of textual records; 12 million maps, charts, and architectural and engineering drawings; 25 million still photographs and graphics; 24 million aerial photographs; 300,000 reels of motion picture film; 400,000 video and sound recordings; and 133 terabytes of electronic data.
Cellars and Attics for Archives: These and Rented Non-Fireproof Buildings House Many of the Most Valuable Records in Washington
Published: Sunday, May 4, 1919
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