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Long-Neglected Attention to Decaying Archives Building and Holdings Finally Reversed as New Mayor and City Council Commit to Funding

Accompanying images can be viewed in the June 2015 issue PDF

By Anthony L. Harvey

A packed, standing room audience that included archivists, Friends of the DC Archives, librarians, writers, long-time community activists, the Director of the DC Public Library, Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero, and staff of the Office of the Secretary of the District of Columbia, quickly exhausted the available seats in the reading room of the Martian Luther King Memorial Library’s Washingtoniana Division for a May 21st community forum on planning for a new DC Archives.

The forum was sponsored by Mayor Bowser and DC Secretary Lauren Vaughan, recently appointed by Bowser to head an agency that includes the DC Archives, a Public Records Center, and a Library of Government Information — and hosted by DCPL Director Richard Reyes-Gavilan.

Attendees expressed surprise at the large turnout of clearly engaged and hopefully expectant forum participants, and surmised that the issuance on January 15, 2015 of a Department of General Services (DGS) Request for Proposals (RFP) with a March 1st closure date for architectural and engineering services in pursuit of a new Archives building — for which a total capital budget of $44.5 million (over several fiscal years) had already been approved by the Gray administration and a previous DC Council, served to bring out such a large crowd.

The program featured a panel moderated by the well-known and long-serving former DC Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis, who was on the Council when the “godfathers” of the Archives and DC Public Records Management Act, Mayor Marion Barry and first DC Archivist Phil Ogilvie, led the movement beginning in 1984 with Barry’s election — 10 years after the passage of home rule — for a modern archive to organize and house the historic records of the District.

Jarvis was joined on the panel by Secretary Vaughn; William Branch, Acting Public Record Administrator and DC Archivist; Kerrie Cotton Williams, newly appointed DCPL Special Collections Manager, which includes the highly regarded Washingtoniana Division, the Black Studies Division, and the Peabody Collection at the Georgetown branch library; and Jeff Bonvechio, DGS Deputy Director for Capital Construction, who formerly served as DCPL’s Director of Capital Projects and Facilities Management/Capital Construction Services which saw the widely praised completion of a series of newly constructed, renovated, and restored DCPL branch libraries.

After a brief discussion of archival fundamentals, apparently to inform several panelists, and an assertion by Vaughn that much had been done since her appointment this year to capitalize on the rich experience of archives and records management at the National Archives and the Smithsonian, the obvious question was asked by Jarvis: why not combine the Washingtoniana Division and the Archives?

The answers were — not surprisingly — bureaucratic, namely that the type of records collected are different and were collected for different reasons, which is of course true. These types of collections, however, are intimately related, and researchers — especially historians and journalists — are typically searching both types as well as other primary sources.

The answers to questions regarding the 1986 establishment of the DC Archives and the dates of District of Columbia records — since the founding of the Republic, we were told — were not helpful. The DC Archives own website stipulates the range of dates for such archival records as birth certificates as being 1874-1928; for death certificates, 1874-1932; marriage records, 1870-1991; and, creeping toward completeness, wills and probates, 1801-1991. A search for divorce records (and other legal matters) will send researchers to DC Superior Court and the National Archives.

Nothing is stipulated about the land records in the DC Archives but legal records of all land plats and subdivisions of private and District government property within DC are in the files of the Office of the DC Surveyor in the Department of Regulatory and Consumer Affairs (DCRA), an omnibus agency whose Records Office is critical for current permit records, architectural plans and drawings, and other crucial databases such as the property information verification system. While libers (record books) were transferred to the DC Archives by the Recorder of Deeds in the Office of Tax and Revenue when that office lost its building, all land records, general public instruments, and all records of transfer taxes and filing fees are maintained for public access by the Recorder of Deeds, which is administered by the Office of Tax and Revenue.

This summary only scratches the surface of the complexity of making simple searches and having to use a vast array of different repositories of records and reference materials in DC — often simply for different date ranges of the same category of materials or different ways of organizing that data — and no doubt prompted pleas from forum participants that records in the Archives and District agencies be digitized and made accessible on-line.

In the absence of any consolidation or electronic networking co-ordination, the example of the Library of Congress’ website in its describing its archival, manuscript, and special collections for researchers and descriptions of lesser completeness for related repositories, could be replicated for the Archives and other DC agencies — to the great benefit of researchers and the general public — as well as providing further coordinating descriptions and links to the records of the Historical Society of Washington and college and university collections of local historical and archival information.

Further questions regarding the distinctions between archival records and special collection records — as well as agency records maintained by agencies versus agency records in the Public Records Center — did not track well with answers, however well-intentioned, which often seemed to obfuscate rather than inform.

In something of a frustrated voice, moderator Jarvis, reflecting on the absence of a plan, other than a decision for a substantially larger new building that would include a museum featuring such objects as the 1957-decommissioned electric chair and a slave’s ball and chain, the vacancies in the offices of DC Records Management Administrator and DC Archivist and the at-present failure by the District to select either an architect or a site for the new structure, Jarvis asked the telling question: why go forward now when all of the above is lacking?

The best of the answers from her fellow panelists was Bonvechio’s, who responded that rather than risk losing the money, you get it obligated with architectural and engineering planning contracts followed by construction contracts as quickly as possible. He also pledged, on behalf of DGS, a robust public engagement to develop specifications for a new and expanded DC Archives. Vaughn also stressed the urgency with which her office was recruiting for leadership and professional positions in the records management and archivist fields.

Subsequent to the May 21st forum, the DC Council’s FY’16 budget enactment eliminated all but one or two million dollars in planning money for a new Archives in the coming fiscal year, increased the total amount of the project in the budget enactment’s Capital Budget to $49.5 million, and moved the detailed design, specifications, and new construction money from a series of fiscal years beginning in FY 2016 to a series of fiscal years beginning in FY 2019. With this action, the DC Council, led by Council Chair Phil Mendelson, provided a solution to the woeful unpreparedness of the District to go forward with the project until the planning, public engagement, and selection of a Records Management Administrator and Archivist, together with an architect, a site for the new building, and transitional plans for the DC Archives are in hand.

Editor’s Note: The deplorable condition of the building and serious concerns about the preservation and access of its contents was the subject of a report, “New Group to Support DC Archives,” that we published one year ago (in slightly edited form) which had initially been circulated by the Friends of the DC Archives.