The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) was established by an act of the U.S. Congress in 1934 for the purpose of housing, protecting, and displaying the documents and records of United States history. The functions of NARA include responsibility for record retention throughout the government. NARA also provides guidance to regional records centers and depositories.
NARA includes the offices of Administrative Services, Federal Register, Washington Records Services, Regional Records Services, Presidential Libraries, and National Historical Publications and Records Commission, as well as the offices of Contractor Services, Human Resources and Information Services, Information Security, and Inspector General. The administration is headed by the Archivist of the United States, who is supported by the Deputy Archivist and Chief of Staff, and a large permanent staff working at NARA facilities around the country.
NARA operates thirty-three facilities nationwide, including the main National Archive Building on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., the National Archives at College Park in Maryland, and the Washington National Records Center in Suitland, Maryland. Other NARA facilities include sixteen Regional Records Services Centers, ten presidential libraries, and the National Personnel Records Center in Saint Louis, Missouri.
NARA is responsible for managing all documents generated by the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the federal government. NARA archivists estimate that less than three percent of documents from these sources have enough historical value to warrant retention. Determining which records should be preserved is one of the administration's major responsibilities. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the National Archives possessed over 21 million cubic feet of textual materials. The vast NARA collection also included some 300,000 reels of film, 5 million maps and charts, about 200,000 sound and video recordings, 9 million aerial photographs, and 14 million still pictures and posters.
The central National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., was constructed in the mid-1930s. The building, which is open to the public, contains a theater, a central exhibit hall that houses the Formation of the Union exhibit, and a semicircular gallery for the States of the Union exhibit.
Office of Administrative Services. In addition to administrative functions, the Office of Administrative Services directs the educational programs of the National Archives. Among these are the publication of reports, bulletins, information papers, and guides to records. In 1969 the office began publication of Prologue, a scholarly journal that appears four times a year. The office also manages the various exhibits and produces and sells copies of documents and photographs contained in the archives. Documents of major historical importance, such as the three great charters–the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights–are available in facsimile.
Office of the Federal Register. The Office of the Federal Register is responsible for publishing The Federal Register, a daily newspaper that contains presidential proclamations, executive orders, and administrative regulations, orders, and notices. Once published in The Federal Register, an order or regulation is official and binding until later amended or rescinded. The Federal Register also contains descriptions of the practices and procedures of federal agencies and departments.
The Office of the Federal Register codifies and publishes all regulatory documents in the Code of Federal Regulations. The organization and function of government agencies and departments are described in the United States Government Organization Manual, published annually. White House press releases and most of the public messages and statements of the president appear in the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents and semiannual volumes of Public Papers of the Presidents.
Office of Records Services. The Office of Records Services is responsible for preserving government records of permanent value and for providing access to them through published guides; microfilm, facsimile, and digital reproduction; research services; and use of the National Archives library and research rooms.
The office maintains a research staff that responds to thousands of inquiries every year. Among these inquires are many from individuals seeking genealogical, citizenship, or military records. The following collections of records provide extraordinary sources of information: census schedules, naturalization records, homestead applications, immigration passenger lists for ships arriving at various Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico ports, passport applications and related papers, seamen's protection certificates, and bounty-land warrant application files. The Office of Records Services also directs the records retention program of the federal government. It assists federal agencies and department in managing their records and evaluates their records maintenance and disposition programs.
Regional Records Services centers. The regional records services facilities were established to deal with the overwhelming volume of records originating in federal offices outside of Washington, D.C., which were far too numerous to be held within the National Archives Building. A nationwide survey of federal records in the late 1930s found collections of important papers originating in the lower federal courts, in customs offices, in offices of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and in offices of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Public Land Management. Many of these papers are on deposit at the regional records services sites.
Office of Presidential Libraries. The presidential library system was established in 1939 when Franklin D. Roosevelt donated his personal and presidential papers and part of his estate in Hyde Park, New York, to the federal government. Harry S. Truman did the same in 1950, and in 1955 Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act, which gave presidents the opportunity to present their personal papers to the American public and to have them administered professionally as part of the archival resources of the United States. Libraries for the collections of presidents Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, George Bush, and Ronald Reagan were subsequently established. The William Jefferson Clinton Library was scheduled to open in 2006.
Presidential libraries function as repositories for preserving the papers, records, photographs, films, and other historical materials of U.S. presidents. Each library also includes a museum with exhibits about the life and times of the president. Most of the libraries offer tours, a series of public programs, and resources to aid researchers. The presidential libraries contain not only official materials, but also personal correspondence, diaries, and other records of the president's appointees and associates. These collections, along with related audiovisual materials, are identified by the name of the donor and are arranged, described, and preserved by archivists. The Presidential Libraries Act recognized the right of a donor to place restrictions on the use of his papers, for example, withholding for a period of years information relating to national security or personal family matters.
National Historical Publications and Records Commission. The National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) was established by Congress in 1934; it is affiliated with the National Archives and Records Administration and chaired by the Archivist of the United States. The mission of the NHPRC is to encourage and fund programs to preserve, publish, and use archival materials relating to U.S. history. The NHPRC makes grants to state archives, local archives, colleges and universities, libraries, museums, historical societies, and other nonprofit organizations to help identify, preserve, and provide public access to important historical materials. Through grants, fellowships, publications, training programs, and special projects the commission offers assistance and funding to individuals and groups committed to preserving America's documentary resources.
National Archives Exhibits
The main exhibit hall of the National Archives Building houses the three great charters of American freedom–the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights. Until 1952, when the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were transferred to the National Archives, they were moved from place to place, chiefly in the charge of the State Department. Despite these moves, they are still in good condition. The Declaration of Independence was moved more often and treated with less care; consequently, its condition has been impaired. All three documents are now protected from further deterioration. The Formation of the Union exhibit consists of the three great charters and approximately 50 other important historical documents, all on permanent display. The States of the Union exhibit displays federal documents pertaining to the histories of the fifty states.
A fireproof, bombproof vault with a protective lid fifteen inches thick lies twenty feet below the floor of the exhibition hall. The three great charters can be lowered into the vault and the lid closed by an electrically powered mechanism. When the documents are not on display, they are housed in this vault, and in an emergency they can be lowered to safety there in less than a minute.
The exhibit hall and galleries of the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., were closed for renovation in the early 2000s. While closed, some of the documents usually displayed there were sent to museums and libraries across the country as part of a traveling exhibit called American Originals.
Electronic Access Project
In the mid 1990s NARA launched the Electronic Access Project, which enables anyone with a computer and an Internet connection to access the holdings of the National Archives. NARA's Archival Information Locator (NAIL) is a searchable database containing information about thousands of archival holdings, as well as digital copies of approximately 125,000 of the archive's most popular and historically significant documents, photographs, and sound recordings. By 2001 NAIL offered access to only a small portion of NARA's vast holdings, but the project was ongoing and more records were being added to the live database daily.
NARA also produced an Online Exhibit Hall, which features digital copies of the documents displayed in the actual exhibit hall at Washington's National Archives Building. The Online Exhibit Hall also presents special educational exhibits featuring documents and still photographs from the NARA collection. Online exhibits have included Powers of Persuasion: Posters From World War II; Portraits of Black Chicago; When Nixon Met Elvis; and Tokens and Treasure: Gifts Given to the Presidents.
NARA's Digital Classroom features reproducible copies of primary documents from the holdings of the National Archives, as well as suggestions and activities for using these materials in the classroom. The NARA publication Teaching With Documents was designed to help teachers and students use primary documents effectively in their instruction and research.