The Decentralization of Archives Debate and National Archives Independence, 1979-1984

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

In going through my old files in the process of retiring I ran across information regarding the debate about the decentralization of the National Archives and the movement for an independent National Archives. Undoubtedly, most current National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) staff are unaware of the story, so I thought I would provide a brief background.

Discussions regarding the decentralization or regionalization of the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration have frequently taken place since the establishment of regional archival units in the late 1960s. Often times these discussions have become heated, as various opinions were expressed regarding the most appropriate location for the agency’s archival holdings. Perhaps the most acrimonious discussions took place during 1979 and 1980, with the result, in part, the National Archives gaining its independence from the General Services Administration (GSA).   

Learning that the National Archives was regionalizing some of its Washington, D.C. holdings, and having just returned from touring National Archives and Records Service (NARS) facilities, former Rear Admiral Rowland G. Freeman III, then Administrator of the GSA, directed the National Archives in August 1979, to prepare a plan to decentralize more records. He did so because the National Archives needed more space for its archives and to him the regional archives branches had the space to store them. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, he believed that the nation’s archives needed to be brought closer to the American public. This was also part of President Jimmy Carter’s goal of “bringing government closer to the people.” What Freeman wanted was records relating to a particular subject deposited in an appropriate regional archives branch; for example, all archives relating to Reconstruction after the Civil War would be sent to the Atlanta, Georgia branch. Responding to this order, NARS identified some 300,000 cubic feet of records that could possibly be sent to the field. On September 12, Dr. James E. O’Neill, then serving as Acting Archivist of the United States (taking over from James B. Rhoads who had resigned as Archivist in August), wrote Freeman about the inappropriateness and difficulties in moving records on the scale proposed by Freeman, who had maintained there was more and cheaper storage space in the archives’ 15 regional offices. But O’Neill had his marching orders and NARS began the process of readying the first 100,000 cubic feet for transfer during the winter of 1979-1980.  

Dr. James E. O’Neill, Deputy Archivist of the United States (National Archives ID 35810372).

The possibility of records being dispersed, with no apparent regard for archival principles or the needs of researchers, caused scholars, NARS archivists, and professional organizations, such as the Society for History in the Federal Government and the Society of American Archivists (SAA), to complain to Freeman, the press, Congress, and the White House. During the fall and into the winter Dr. O’Neill was instrumental in delaying the transfer of the archives to the field while the opposition to the transfer pleaded their case.  

On December 21, 1979, in the chandeliered Archivist Reception Room at the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., Admiral Freeman met the National Archives Advisory Council. According to the account of this meeting in The Washington Post the next day, Freeman said “I have a tremendous sense of history. I have helped make it…I know where I’m coming from. I’m an expert in almost every area of your work.” He told the audience that he was not budging from his plan to save taxpayers money by shipping archival records from Washington to regional offices across the country. The reporter covering the meeting, Thomas Grubisich, wrote that the scholars did not take Freeman’s comments very well. He quoted Pulitzer Prize winning historian John Toland as saying “the dispersal of records is the beginning of the end of the National Archives.” Toland maintained that “If I’m working on a subject…it might encompass something happening in Boston, Philadelphia and New York. It’s the subject that’s important, not the place.” Splitting up the Reconstruction-era records, which were being used by many researching the growing efforts to understand African American life in the 19th century, “will make them almost unusable,” said University of Maryland professor Ira Berlin. He said the Freedman’s Bureau records, for example, should stay in Washington, D.C. because they often require cross-checking with documents from other departments which were stored at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

According to Grubisich, differences between Freeman and the assembled historians emerged most dramatically when Freeman was told that one of his dispersal orders had been reversed by Dr. O’Neill. Indeed, O’Neill had rescinded Freeman’s order to send some Reconstruction-era documents to Atlanta. According to Grubisich, Freeman responded to this information by showing no willingness to compromise, saying flatly “They’re [the records] going to Atlanta.”

A turning point in the debate came about during early January 1980 when former Archivist of the United States, James B. Rhoads, and noted historian John Hope Franklin went to the White House and lobbied against the decentralization plan. Rhoads was quoted in The Washington Post on January 15, 1980, as saying “I am convinced that there is a very real danger that in the course of a few months he [Freeman] may undo the work of three generations of professional archivists who have built possibly the finest national archives in the world.” In the same issue Franklin was quoted as saying about the regionalization issue, “It’s the craziest thing I’ve heard of.” And added, “People ask me, ‘What the hell is going on at the National Archives?’”

During the second week of January 1980, a group of local historians and archivists formed an Emergency Committee to Preserve the National Archives. Its members included William Appleman Williams, the president of the Organization of American Historians and noted historian Herbert G. Gutman. In the Letters to the Editor section entitled “Leave the Archives Alone,” in The Washington Post of January 19, 1980, there were two letters critical of Freeman. One, by Cornell University history professor Walter Lafeber, challenged Freeman’s assertion that decentralization of archives would benefit everyone, and added that perhaps it would be better if Freeman and his staff should be dispersed to regional offices, and “leaving the National Archives’ records in Washington so that historians will not be hamstrung in their attempts to reconstruct the nation’s history.”

Freeman, shortly after the Franklin-Rhoads visit to the White House, was called to the White House and told to hold off on the transfer of the archives to the field. According to The Washington Post of January 23, Freeman announced he was stopping the dispersal of the archives because “‘It hasn’t been managed very well’” by archives officials. Freeman said he was not necessarily backing down on his entire plan, “‘but I want to look at the whole thing…”  

Once this decision was announced, the U.S. News & World Report (February 4, 1980), in a piece entitled “The Scholars Win One,” observed that “good sense has scored a rare victory against the bureaucracy in the confrontation over the American heritage.” With 1980 being an election year, and apparently not wanting to embarrass the Carter administration, and seeing that the National Archives would do everything it could to avoid decentralizing its holdings, Freeman, that spring, abandoned his effort to get the National Archives to send many of its holdings to the regions.

The battle over the decentralization issue, and other matters of conflict between GSA and NARS, resulted in the introduction of a bill in Congress during June 1980 separating NARS from GSA, making it once again an independent agency. Although this bill was not enacted into law, it started a public debate on the status of NARS, which eventually resulted in the National Archives and Records Administration Act of 1984 (98 Stat. 2280), October 19, 1984, making the National Archives – renamed the National Archives and Records Administration – an independent agency on April 1, 1985.

Postscript:  Robert M. Warner, who was appointed Archivist of the United States in July 1980, wrote that Dr. O’Neill “had hoped to be named Archivist of the United States, but Admiral Freeman turned apoplectic at the thought.” Warner and O’Neill would have their problems with Freeman’s successor Gerald P. Carmen. On January 14, 1982, Carmen told Warner he did not think much of Warner’s staff; “he didn’t like Jim O’Neill and [thought] he should be kicked out….He didn’t think academics could really run the place, it should be run by business types.”  (Robert M. Warner, Diary of a Dream: A History of the National Archives Independence Movement, 1980-1985, 1995, p. 37). Dr. O’Neill died on March 6, 1987, at age 58.

For more on the subject see my article “Federal Field Archives: Past, Present, and Future,” Government Information Quarterly, Vol. 4 No. (1987), pp. 151-166; chapters by Robert M. Warner and Trudy Huskamp Peterson in Timothy Walch, ed., Guardian of Heritage: Essays on the History of the National Archives (1985); and, issues of Records Management Quarterly for January and April 1980.