Open Access at NARA: In a Precarious State

By Karen Needles

Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, July 6, 2021


(Editor's Note: Karen Needles, a past president of the Lincoln Group, is an Air Force veteran, a former history teacher, education resource specialist with IBM and the Discovery Channel, and former education resources specialist with the Library of Congress. She is the founder and director of the Lincoln Archives Digital Project: the first and only project digitizing the federal records of the Lincoln Administration.)


As a professional researcher, I have twin concerns: the preservation of our country’s records and open access for the public to such documents. All researchers - and the general public as well - need to be aware of plans recently announced by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), plans that impact both public records access and document preservation.


For years NARA has been vastly underfunded and understaffed and has lacked sufficient space to house its records. These factors have slowed the overall research process. As one means of addressing funding shortfalls, NARA previously reduced the hours available for researchers by eliminating late and Saturday hours. Staffing changes followed. Generalists replaced subject matter specialists, those individuals with extensive knowledge of specific agencies, and the loss of this expertise increased the difficulty of locating documents. In addition, “finding aids,” used by experienced researchers to assist them in the pulling process, disappeared from the shelves.


Backlogs of record requests already existed within the agency prior to Covid-related closures. The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC), that part of the Archives housing personnel records for the Army and Air Force, experienced a fire in its St. Louis building in 1973, destroying 85% of the files for these troops. Not surprisingly, a backlog of record requests developed. Professional researchers stepped in to rebuild the records, a task not performed by NPRC staffers. Recently NARA closed the archival side of the St. Louis facility to focus on reducing over 500,000 pending veterans’ record requests. As a result, researchers, prohibited from accessing the archival area, are unable to perform their work: searching for and locating the records needed by the veterans to document their claims for benefits.


Further changes are underway. I understand why NARA needs to take steps to streamline the research process while working within budgetary constraints. However, I am concerned that the proposed changes will not accomplish the desired results while at the same time maintaining the integrity of the archival process. The agency wants to move to a “research by appointment” system, one which will greatly limit the number of hours available for research. In June the NARA facility in College Park, MD, started a pilot study whereby only a total of ten researchers are allowed research access for 4-6 hours for two days a week. This approach is expected to result in appointment request backlogs, as large numbers of researchers compete for a limited number of hours. The system will negatively impact researchers’ ability to fulfill the public requests in an expeditious fashion.


The agency also has proposed a plan to digitize records to be accessioned, a plan under which many original documents will be destroyed. For more information, click here. Sadly, past digital initiatives have not proven to be as effective or cost efficient as originally anticipated. The recently announced digitalization initiative is to be added to NARA’s Electronic Records Project, launched in 2006 and still under development. Estimated completion date of the Records Project is still two years away. NARA closed its Alaska regional facility eleven years ago with the promise that the public would have digital access to its records. That digitalization still has not taken place. However, most residents of Alaska do not have computers or internet access so they would not be able to access the records even if the process had been completed. Likewise, a “scan upon demand model” within the agency’s Freedom of Information Act department has not delivered expected results. The processing of these requests is running several years behind schedule.


Technology is ever changing. There is no guarantee that the technology used for this initiative will last and, if that occurs, no backups of many documents will be available. We stand to lose valuable historical records and portions of our nation’s story. We already saw one such a scenario occur in the past when agencies placed records on microfilm, only to have those records “self-destruct.” Paper records on the other hand, if properly preserved and treated, will last hundreds of years. Moreover, the digital image copies produced will lack the resolution required for publication and other research needs. Researchers will need to pay the contractor to obtain the needed high resolution images. Such possible complications arising from digital innovations require careful consideration before implementation.


The planned changes will negatively impact my Lincoln Archives Digital Project along with the work of a multitude of historians and writers, not to mention members of the public involved in the research of personal or ancestral records. The livelihood of professional researchers will be in jeopardy. Those impacted or concerned by these changes may wish to contact their congressional representatives. The Archival Researchers Association, an organization dedicated to improving access to historical records for both individuals and organizations, has worked with members of Congress to increase funding for the Archives in support of public access. The organization has provided a template for contacting officials as well as more detailed information on issues discussed in this article.