Appraising FBI Records in New York City and Los Angeles, 1981: A Personal Diary

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

In going through my papers I found that early in 1982 I had written a paper regarding the 1981 appraisal of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) records by a team of National Archives and Records Service (NARS)[1] archivists, of which I was a member. Specifically, the paper was a personal diary of our visits to the FBI’s New York City and Los Angeles Field Offices. I do not recall why I wrote it. I know it never appeared in print and I do not believe it was given as an address to some group of archivists. Reading it brought back many wonderful memories of the FBI appraisal project. I thought readers of this blog would, perhaps, be entertained by it.

The FBI appraisal project, which I described in an article (The FBI Records Appraisal, pp. 51- 66, The Midwestern Archivist, vol. XIII, No. 2, 1988), was conducted under a court order by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The order required NARS to appraise all of the FBI headquarters and field office records, some 500,000 cubic feet, and do so by a court-imposed deadline near the end of 1981. To ensure NARS met the deadline, in February 1981 an appraisal team was assembled and began its work of reviewing and analyzing the archival value of over 200 classifications (series) of FBI headquarters and field office case files. The work was challenging and, at times, enjoyable. At times it was stressful; we often worked six or seven days a week, were required to limit our use of annual leave, and traveled and worked on weekends.

What follows is the paper I wrote, with a few minor changes and footnotes added for elaboration or explanation.

On Sunday June 21, 1981, we flew to New York from National Airport. The New York appraisal team consisted of George Chalou, Edie Hedlin, Sue Falb, Tim Nenninger, Gerry Haines, Don Harrison, Ed Barrese, Jerry Nashorn, Trudy Peterson, and myself. The director of the project, James E. O’Neill and his deputy Charles Dollar spent several days with us; long enough to do a little work, but not long enough for us to convince them to treat us to dinner. While we were in New York the rest of the appraisal task force members, Mike McReynolds, Sharon Gibbs, Henry Wolfinger, Bruce Ambacher, and Mike Goldman, traveled to Dallas to appraise the field office files in that city.

We arrived in New York around dinner time and immediately set out to take a bite of the Big Apple, in Greenwich Village. So far, this field office appraisal was off to a good start, in light of just having spent several weeks at the FBI’s Washington Field Office (Buzzard Point[2]), which, next to the National Archives, has one of the worst eating facilities in Washington, D.C.[3] The next morning we left our hotel at 7am and took the 59th Street subway (the “A” train) to the Jacob Javits Federal Building, where the FBI occupies the top five floors. After a quick breakfast in their cafeteria, being issued security badges, and given secret door codes, we began work at 8am, and continued appraising until 6pm, with a strictly enforced thirty minutes lunch and no formal breaks. Once in the morning and again during the afternoon one of the task force members went to the cafeteria and brought back coffee and soft drinks for the group. We worked in a room with headquarters[4] and field office FBI personnel, who not only kept an eye on us (as we did on them), but masked certain information before the files were given to us to appraise. [5]

At dinner the first night we had a spirited discussion (i.e., warm disagreement) on whether we should recommend preserving an information sample from each series of records. This was going to be one of many after work discussions of appraisal problems. If nothing else, they certainly taught us that nobody has a monopoly on appraisal theory. This lesson was useful later when all of us had to make a joint appraisal decision on each series of FBI records.

The appraisal was rather uneventful until Thursday when were informed a Puerto Rican group might attempt to kill or kidnap an FBI employee the next day. To take precautions the wall ashtrays near the elevators were removed so bombs could not be placed in them, extra guards were assigned to building security, and agents were issued shotguns. An FBI supervisor assured us they would do their best to protect us. And I thought being an archivist would be a safe profession. The next day, while walking from the subway station to the federal building none of us walked a straight line (harder for a sniper that way) and outside the building in loud voices, we made it clear we were archivists, not special agents. Once in the building we took a non-FBI elevator to the sixth floor, and changed there to one that would take us to the FBI’s floors. Although where we worked on the 26th floor had a panoramic view, I made it a point of not going near the windows. I figured it was safer that way.

We enjoyed Sunday off, having worked all day Saturday. Monday came all too soon, and we were back appraising records and plotting ways of avoiding to have to work Saturdays in Los Angeles.

On Wednesday we were let out early, 430pm, and joined the FBI headquarters personnel for dinner. It was a nice affair, especially exchanging information about where we had eaten dinner for the past week and a half, and telling each other J. Edgar Hoover stories. It was not, however, as nice a time as the previous Wednesday when I went to see one of my favorite singers, Bobby Short[6], perform. Maybe someday I will be able to get the National Archives to pipe his music into the stacks.

On Thursday, July 2, a few team members went to work to wrap up loose ends (which always exists in archival project work, right?), and the rest of us returned to Washington, D.C.

We flew to Los Angeles from Dulles Airport on July 19th, determined to hit the ground running (or is that hit the beach running) so we could have Saturday off. The Los Angeles appraisal team consisted of ten of us, with the project director and deputy director joining us for a few days. The other team members went to Miami to review field office files there.

Monday morning, bright and early, we drove from our hotel in Santa Monica to the Los Angles FBI Field Office, which was located in the 17-story federal building, located on the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and the San Diego Freeway, near the UCLA campus.

As in New York, the FBI occupied the top four floors of the building. Someone mentioned they did this because this was the only way they could get high. The walls of all the FBI facilities we visited were pretty much the same. However, California is California. The Los Angles field office had snappy slogans on the walls, e.g. “What Shall it Be?-Law and Order or Crime and Chaos?”

The first records I looked at on Monday were civil claims against the government case files. During the course of the appraisal, we were to see many of these types of cases, most of them relating to accidents by FBI special agents. We concluded that the FBI records program could be improved by having fewer traffic accidents. Nobody, however, had the courage to make this a formal recommendation.

We rewarded ourselves on Tuesday with an excellent Mexican dinner, and afterwards walked to the end of the Santa Monica pier to watch the sun sink into the Pacific. Now, who says appraising records does not have its rewards.

After work on Friday, we had a pool party, with good west coast beer and pizza. It was too bad we could not have had the records brought to us at poolside, or better, on the beach.

Unlike New York, we had Saturday off, and we all took advantage of the weekend to have a little fun in the sun. Poor Don Harrison learned to love the capital beltway after unsuccessfully attempting to get to San Diego via the San Diego Freeway. Two of us went to Disneyland, which in many respects, is a lot like an archival institution. I will leave it to your imagination to make the comparisons.

After another pool party Sunday it was back to work on Monday. Tuesday found most of the team members visiting the FBI’s Long Beach resident agency[7]. Without realizing that Sharon Gibbs, Sue Falb, and Edie Hedlin were archivists, with Ph.D.’s, the senior resident agent suggested “our girls” might want to apply for clerical positions in his office. He was lucky archivists do not carry weapons.

On Wednesday, I looked at a control-type file on notorious places of amusement in Los Angeles. I wonder if the Baltimore field office had such a file on Ocean City? Well, I am sure we will be able to find them on our own. [8]

On July 30th we flew back to Washington, D.C. The trip had been a success, professionally and socially, except the movie shown on the return flight, “The Legend of the Lone Ranger.” [9] Reboxing can be more entertaining.


Records created by the NARS’ FBI Appraisal Task Force are located at Archives II in College Park, MD: Classifications and Guidelines, 1981-1982 ,(NAID 3477983). General Services Administration. National Archives and Records Service. FBI Appraisal Task Force. Record Group 64, Records of the National Archives and Records Administration.


[1] The National Archives and Records Service gained its independence from the General Services Administration and became the National Archives and Records Administration on April 1, 1985, the effective date of the National Archives and Records Act of 1984. The FBI personnel with whom we worked referred to us as NARSIANS.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buzzard_Point.

[3] Regarding the NARS cafeteria, see p. 79 of Barbara Tuchman’s Practicing History: Selected Essays.

[4] We worked with a wonderful group of FBI headquarters personnel, especially Robert W. Scherrer, section chief of the FBI’s Records Systems Section; Thomas B. Dudney, supervisor of the FBI’s Records Research Staff; and Clara Glock, the Bureau’s specialist on archival matters. Mr. Scherrer began his career with the Bureau in 1953 as a file clerk. After obtaining a law degree he became a special agent. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Scherrer   .

[5] This included grand jury testimony, Internal Revenue Service taxpayer information, Title III wiretap material, and the names of FBI informants.

[6] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bobby_Short 

[7] The Los Angeles Field Office, like most all FBI field office, have satellite office, known as resident agencies. 

[8] This is a reference to the fact that many of us were going to attend the 1982 Spring meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference that was being held in Ocean City, Maryland. 

[9] See https://variety.com/2013/film/news/1981-lone-ranger-pic-galloped-quickly-into-oblivion-1200501507/  

3 thoughts on “Appraising FBI Records in New York City and Los Angeles, 1981: A Personal Diary

  1. Thank you for the interesting article about a landmark records appraisal. Another series from this project and in the holdings of the Electronic Records Division is the File of Master Case File Data, 1981 – 1982 (NAID 618893, https://catalog.archives.gov/id/618893). That data file contains information extracted from the 16,750 case files examined in the regular sample of agency headquarters, the seven field offices, and two legal attache offices; and 900 case files examined in the headquarters multi-section sample field office oversample (“extras”). If researchers are interested in obtaining a copy of the data, contact the Electronic Records Division at cer@nara.gov or 301-837-0470.

  2. Great stuff, Greg! That senior resident agent is lucky to have escaped a multiple microspatula stabbing a la Julius Caesar!

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