Missing Archives

by Fred Ray on July 5, 2009 · 2 comments

* Civil War telegrams from Abraham Lincoln.
* Original signatures of Andrew Jackson.
* Presidential portraits of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
* NASA photographs from space and on the moon.
* Presidential pardons.

What do these all have in common? They were all in the National Archives at one time but now are not, or at least can’t be found. Some were stolen and later found on Ebay or in the possession of collectors, some I don’t doubt were misfiled (it’s easy enough to do, you often get stacks of material with no index).

The Archives’ stewardship of the nation’s records has been questioned before. In a well-publicized incident, former President Bill Clinton’s national security adviser, Sandy Berger, took documents from the Archives in the fall of 2003 while preparing, along with other ex-Clinton administration officials, for testimony to the Sept. 11 commission. In September 2005, Berger was sentenced to two years of probation, 100 hours of community service, a $50,000 fine and loss of his security clearance for three years. Some records have been missing for decades from the Archives’ 44 facilities in 20 states and the capital, including 13 presidential libraries.

Perhaps eventually all this information will be digitally archived, although the holdings are vast, and there will be times when you need to look at the original documents. For example, I’ve found some CW era documents that were so faded as the be unreadable, but could be “brought up” to readability by copying them with the contrast turned all the way up.

Blogger/teacher Betsy Newmark has some thoughts as well.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

P. Swan July 6, 2009 at 9:32 am

The folks at the National Archives have a difficult job to do and they have too few employees to do that job, or at least too few who are trained to do that job. They deserve our support and help in assuring that they have the resources they need to carry out their tasks. With mountains of documents to preserve, it’s probably no wonder that they lose some. With better support they could reduce that loss even further.

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Robert July 6, 2009 at 9:08 pm

P. Swan….Maybe but where is the money going to come from. When you don’t even know what you are giving a researcher it’s pretty tough to know you are getting it all back. Digitizing would seem to be the answer of course but then we go back to time and money both of which are limited.

Your point about supporting NARA is of course on target but I’m not sure most people feel that way. Kind of the same way they look at battlefield preservation: “Yeah it’s important but I sure do like the thought of a Walmart.”

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