archival revival

Seattle's National Archives and the Fight to Keep History Here

The announcement has many organizations and tribes looking for ways to stop the closure.

By Marisa Comeau-Kerege February 13, 2020

Ever wonder about the messages sent in the wake of Mount St. Helens' 1980 eruption, or the detailed cases of those banned from our shores by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882? In a warehouselike building in Windermere, you can find those and other pieces of our collective past—but probably not for much longer. 

The National Archives and Records Administration facility in Seattle is a treasure trove of historical documents from Washington, Alaska, Oregon, and Idaho. So, when an obscure government agency—the Public Buildings Reform Board—recommended that the feds should sell the Sand Point Way building to cut costs this January, it came as a shock to many in the area, especially researchers who rely on physical access to those materials. The U.S. Office of Management and Budget has since approved PBRB’s assessment, and the Archives expects a sale to take place in the next 18 months, though it has requested a three-year stay after the acquisition. Eventually, the records will land at the archives in either Kansas City, Missouri or Riverside, California.

Since the announcement, people and organizations across the state have begun looking for ways to keep the records close to home. Native communities have been particularly outspoken, and with good reason: Tribes frequently use Archives records to establish tribal membership, show proof of tribal citizenship for educational funds, and confirm fishing rights on reservations. The Muckleshoot, Puyallup, and the Port Gamble S’Klallam tribes have publicly condemned the closure.

On Tuesday local tribal leaders met with Archives brass while protestors held signs outside, but left with little good news to share. A spokesperson for the archives made it clear that the decision was made, but that the organization was looking for ways to mitigate the impact of moving the records. Only a small percentage of the building’s records have been digitized.

Washington state attorney general Bob Ferguson is examining the closure’s recommendation process before he determines if it legally followed the Administrative Procedure Act. And every senator from Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Alaska, as well as eight Washington state representatives, signed a letter to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget calling the process “flawed” and saying that the impacts of moving the archives would be “detrimental.”

The PBRB is an independent agency tasked with finding real estate owned by the federal government that is underutilized or worth more as cash to the federal budget. Other properties listed in the recommendation include a U.S. government office building in Auburn, Washington; a fisheries science center in California; two laboratories belonging to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Ohio; and a Veterans Affairs medical center in Denver.

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