David Kahn: Pleads for more funds for the National Archives





EVERYBODY knows how to use a library. You look up the card catalogue in the computer, type in the subject, find the Dewey Decimal System number, walk to the shelf and get the book.

It’s different with an archive, where unpublished memorandums, reports, notes and letters are organized not by topic but by the agency that created them. You have to know which agency did the work you are interested in, and whether more than one was involved. The complexity of government means first-time archive users need help.

Alone among the world’s great archives, the National Archives of the United States has offered such assistance to visitors. At Britain’s Public Record Office, for instance, a courteous official points to rows of volumes listing the contents of files for the Admiralty, the Foreign Office, Scotland Yard. After that, you’re on your own. It is much the same at France’s Archives Nationales and Germany’s Bundesarchiv. Only at the big modern Archives II building in College Park, Md., will an archivist sit down and guide a user through the maze.

But that precious advantage is being lost — and it’s all started to change in the last few months. More than a million cubic feet of documents, nearly enough to fill the Washington Monument, need to be organized, described and filed. This “document surplus” — a term the archivist of the United States, Allen Weinstein, prefers to “backlog” — was caused in part by the wait for a new archives building and by a new emphasis on electronic records. But mainly, with no increase in its budget in years, it comes down to a lack of money....

Why does this matter? Because the National Archives does more than display the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. From its astonishing riches emerge not only the records of one’s immigrant grandparents but the documents and images that produce books and telecasts about this country. Without the services of the archives, the nation risks amnesia and loses direction. The president should ask for the few millions the archives needs to do its job right, and Congress should appropriate it. America must not forget itself.



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