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National Archives closing could impact researchers, tribes, says UW professors

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National Archives closing could impact researchers, Indian tribes, says UW professors

Smith Hall on the Quad houses the history department.

Historians will soon lose a valuable resource that has been a Seattle landmark for 73 years.

The National Archives & Records at Seattle, which sits on Sand Point Way Northeast about 2.5 miles north of the UW, were approved for sale by the federal government recently in a process that got little fanfare — and gave little notice to those who frequent its services.

No date has been set for the closure, according to a press release from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), though NARA estimated the sale will take 18 months and that they “have requested to stay in the building for an additional three years following the sale.”  

According to the five-person Public Buildings Reform Board, which recommended the sale to the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the archives facility “does not meet NARA’s long‐term storage needs.”

Records will be relocated to NARA facilities in Kansas City, Missouri, and archival records will be relocated to Riverside, California, according to the board. 

The Seattle National Archives are the only such location left in the Pacific Northwest following the closure of the Anchorage archives in 2014. There are only three federal records centers on the West Coast; once Seattle is closed, researchers looking for in-person access to documents will have to travel to San Francisco or Riverside.

Although the press release states that “some of our most popular records have been digitized and are available online,” it does not specify how many files from Seattle have been digitized.

The closure has garnered criticism of the process by which the facility’s sale was approved. Genealogist Trish Hackett Nicola wrote in The Seattle Times that neither the facility’s staff nor those who used its services were told of public hearings held across the country on the subject, and that none were in the Pacific Northwest.

The office of Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who represents the area where the archives are located, was notified that the decision was made late October 2019, and that the OMB said they would make outreach efforts to local and state officials, according to The Seattle Times

But none came, and the first inkling that the facility was to be sold was a post made Jan. 13 in the Federal News Network online news service, which reports on the activities of various federal agencies. It took another two days for the news to trickle back to the West Coast. 

When it arrived, it sparked uproar among local historians, some of whom are students or faculty at the UW. 

“The loss of this regional branch of NARA would greatly hamper research activity at the UW and create an undue burden for the 272 federally recognized tribal nations — and unrecognized tribes — in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska,” Dr. Joshua Reid, associate professor of history and American Indian studies, wrote in a letter. 

The letter to the Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, was co-signed by associate professor of anthropology Dr. Jean Dennison: “This recommendation should be reconsidered and reversed.”

The letter further claims that the Riverside facility where a good portion of the Seattle records will be held is ill-equipped to receive the volume of records that will be sent. 

The letter also argues the primary burden of the closure will fall on the tribal populations both recognized and unrecognized that rely on records not only to record the histories of their people, but to carry out litigation and to protect their sovereignty. 

“The Department of History is alarmed to hear of the eventual closure of the National Archives facility in Seattle,” department chair Glennys Young said in a statement on behalf of the history department. “Its records are essential for researchers in the United States and around the world.” 

Reach reporter Matthew Hipolito at Twitter: @hipolmat

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