Imagine the history of the United States — government and court records, genealogy, maps and Native American history — all in a single stack of paper.
"The reams of paper would stretch around the entire earth," says historian and professional researcher Dr. Jennifer Stevens.
Records critical to understanding the history of this country are split between 14 regional archive facilities across the country. In Seattle, a 157,000 square foot-facility holds historical documents from federal government action in Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Idaho.
Stevens says the documents stored are critical for both private companies and taxpayers alike.
"You find a lot of really important environmental, cultural and governmental records up there that help us understand how the government has dealt with the West, and the Pacific Northwest in particular over the last 150 years," she said.
In December, the Public Buildings Reform Board recommended the sale of the Seattle building and 11 other government properties.
The announcement of the pending sale of the properties and resulting decision to move the northwest’s historical archives to sibling facilities in Riverside, California and Kansas City, Missouri, shocked historians and elected officials alike.
A spokesperson for Idaho Senator Mike Crapo said only a single elected official was informed prior to the announcement of the sale: Washington representative Pramila Jayapal. The Seattle archive building is in her district.
Most senators learned about the sale when their state’s historical societies began reaching out to protest the decision and ask for help.
All eight northwest senators from Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Alaska signed a letter to the Office of Management and Budget asking to reconsider the closure.
That letter was dated Jan. 24, the same day The Office of Management and Budget approved the reform board recommendations to sell all 12 properties.
Reform board executive director Adam Bodner explained the property sales Jan. 14 on "Government Matters," a syndicated television program produced by Sinclair Broadcasting.
"The mission is to look at under-utilized or unnecessary properties and facilitate their disposal,” Bodner told the program.
The five-member PBRB, as it's known, was formed by a 2016 law called the Federal Assets Sale and Transfer Act. The board was tasked with quickly evaluating all government properties to find good candidates for liquidation, and provided the ability to quickly sell government property outside the normal disposal process.
While the language of the federal assets sale and transfer act focused on maximizing value to the taxpayer, it also included an operating standard that "public access to agency services is maintained or enhanced" when determining appropriate assets for sale.
The most current property reform board was installed in May 2019, and recommended 14 sites for sale in October. Two sites were removed from the final recommendations made to the Office of Management and Budget in December 2019 because those sites would not have been able to be sold quickly enough.
The PBRB held public meetings during this process, but most in Washington, D.C. No public meetings were held in any northwest states, and transcripts do not show any specific discussion of the NARA-Seattle facility during those meetings.
The National Archives and Research Administration says Seattle is its third-least visited site in the country, and high annual operating costs and about $2.4 million in backlogged maintenance costs factored into the decision to sell. But most notably, the building sits on 10 acres of very desirable, medium density zoned property in northeast Seattle. The land alone is potentially worth tens of millions.
Stevens called the decision to close the facility a "strictly financial decision."
She contrasts it with what happened a decade ago in Denver. Records from seven states and the Bureau of Indian Affairs had outgrown the space at the Denver Federal Building. A new facility, which opened in 2012, was built 15 miles away, and the records remained in that region.
The National Archives and Records Administration did not respond to questions about why Seattle’s records couldn’t remain within the region they were created in.
Instead, an emailed statement claimed the administration has more than a half-million pages digitally available from the Seattle facility, and is on track nationwide to meet a goal of 500 million pages digitized by 2024. Seattle’s site administrator seemed to dispute that, telling the Seattle Times, "probably .001%" of Seattle’s records had been digitized.
Stevens, who has visited most of the federal archive sites west of the Mississippi, says the workload is daunting.
"It's a lot of paper and it's a lot of material that needs to be captured. The idea of that stuff being digitized anytime soon is totally unrealistic," she said.
When the region’s records leave the Northwest, the impact for professional researchers like Stevens is mostly time and travel. That can be balanced out by charging clients — private companies and taxpayer entities alike — higher fees. It’s the people on their own time she is concerned for.
"There are a lot of other people, including tribal members, genealogists, nonprofits or community organizations who want to understand their history," she said. "They will be out of luck. They won't have the money to send people down to these places."
Senator Crapo’s spokesperson said the group of northwest senators is exploring legislation to fix the issue and keep the archives in Seattle.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson is examining legal action against OMB and the property review board. A spokesperson said Tuesday, his office had filed Freedom of Information requests with both the PBRB and OMB related to this case.
Ferguson has said he thinks a lack of public engagement in the decision-making process may have violated the law.
A spokesman for Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden said his office was aware of the issue but declined to comment further.
Barring legal or legislative action, Seattle’s records facility is expected to remain open for the duration of the sale process, plus an additional three years while materials are moved.
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