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Hours: Exhibition Hall:
10:00 AM - 9:00 PM
About the National Archives:
Anyone who has cleaned out a family attic
knows the difficulty of deciding what is worth keeping and what can be
discarded. Imagine the task of sifting through the accumulated papers of a
nation's official life -- growing by billions of pieces a year -- and
determining what to retain and what to destroy.
This function is performed by the National Archives, a federal institution
that holds the power of life or death over the wide-ranging records of the
United States government.
Although the National Archives was not established until 1934, its major
holdings date back to 1775. They capture the sweep of the past: slave ship
manifests and the Emancipation Proclamation; captured German records and the
Japanese surrender document from World War II; journals of polar expeditions
and photographs of Dust Bowl farmers; Indian treaties making transitory
promises; and a richly bound document bearing the bold signature "Bonaparte"
-- the Louisiana Purchase Treaty that doubled the territory of the young
republic. In short, the National Archives preserves the record of the
nation's civil, military, and diplomatic activities. On permanent display
are the Great Charters: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of
the United States, and the Bill of Rights.
The National Archives keeps only those federal records that are judged to
have an enduring value -- about 2 to 3 percent of those generated in any
given year. By now, they add up to a formidable number, diverse in form as
well as in content. There are about 3 billion pages of textual material; 5
million still pictures, including Civil War photographs by Mathew Brady; 91
million feet of motion picture film reaching back to the inauguration of
President William McKinley in 1897 and including documentaries, combat
footage, and news-reels; 70,000 sound recordings including congressional
hearings, news broadcasts, Supreme Court arguments, Tokyo Rose's radio
propaganda from World War II, and the Nuremberg trials; 2 million
cartographic items; and 9 million aerial photographs. All of these materials
are preserved because they are important to the workings of government, or
have long-term research worth, or provide information of value to ordinary
citizens -- for example, military service and pension records, federal
census schedules, and ship passenger lists recording the arrival of
Although the National Archives was created primarily for use by government,
its rich stores of material are available to all: historians interpreting
the past, journalists researching stories, students preparing term papers,
Indian tribes pressing claims, and persons tracing their ancestry or
satisfying their curiosity about particular historical events. The National
Archives serves as the nation's memory for a multitude of purposes.
Concern for the preservation of the records of the nation was expressed
early. "Time and accident," Thomas Jefferson had warned, "are committing
daily havoc on the originals deposited in our public offices." A century of
such admonition went unheeded however. Tentative plans for an archives were
developed before World War I following a number of damaging fires in
government buildings, but the outbreak of the war delayed the project. It
was not until the Great Depression that historians and others concerned with
the preservation of the nation's records saw their hopes realized.
The task of designing an archives building was given to the distinguished
architect John Russell Pope. He set out to create a structure that would be
in harmony with other great Washington landmarks -- the White House,
Capitol, Treasury Building and Lincoln Memorial -- and at the same time
express the significance, safety, and permanence of the records to be
deposited inside. One has only to look at the great Corinthian columns (72
of them weighing 95 tons apiece) and at the classic facade, pierced by
bronze doors a foot thick and 40 feet tall, to know that Pope succeeded.
Ground for the building was broken in 1931, the cornerstone was laid by
President Herbert Hoover in 1933, and the staff moved in to work in 1935.
The building was equipped with 21 levels of steel and concrete stack areas,
windowless and temperature-controlled for document preservation purposes and
protected with fire safety devices. Provided also were technical facilities
in which deteriorating documents could be restored and frequently needed
Most important to the new agency was the professional staff. Carefully
recruited and trained, it faced in those early years the mammoth task of
devising policies and operating procedures for the new institution and of
collecting and inventorying a 160-year backlog of records, many of them
packed helter-skelter into scattered attics and basements. Yet in less than
a generation, the National Archives became a model for preserving the
permanently valuable records of the nation. This achievement is the more
remarkable given the undreamed-of growth of the federal government and the
proliferation of paperwork during this period.
There were added responsibilities: publishing the Federal Register, a daily
record of government proclamations, orders, and regulations; operating the
Presidential library system for the papers of the Presidents beginning with
Hoover; running a Government-wide program to ensure adequate documentation
and appropriate disposition of government records; reproducing selected
records on microfilm to make them more readily available to the public; and
administering a nation-wide network of 14 records centers, in which records
are often held temporarily pending a decision to keep or destroy.
Two centers are national in scope: the Washington National Records Center at
Suitland, MD, a suburb of Washington, and the National Personnel Records
Center of St. Louis. The others are regional in character and are part of a
National Archives centers system. These centers also house field archives
branches. The holdings of these archives are chiefly of regional interest
but also include microfilm copies of many of the most important records in
the National Archives.
Under the dome on the Constitution Avenue [side] is the Rotunda, where the
great documents of America's formation, written in flowing script on sheets
of parchment, are permanently displayed. The pages of the Declaration of
Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights are sealed into individual
bronze and glass cases in which air has been replaced by protective helium.
Light filters prevent fading. At closing time, the documents are lowered
from their marble setting into a vault below the floor. On the side walls of
the Rotunda are two murals: Thomas Jefferson presenting the Declaration of
Independence to John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress, and
James Madison presenting the Constitution to George Washington, President of
the Constitutional Convention. Other exhibits in the Rotunda and the
Circular Gallery highlight major events in the nation's history.
The National Archives Building has numerous sculptural decorations and
inscriptions, but the words on the base of one statue have become identified
with the institution itself. Cut into the stone are these words from
Shakespeare's The Tempest: "What is past is prologue." There is no better
reason for preserving the documentary materials of the American experience.
Hours For Visiting And Studying
The Exhibition Hall is open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. except during winter
months (the day after Labor Day through March 31) when the Exhibition Hall
is closed at 5:30 p.m. The building is closed on Christmas Day. The
Pennsylvania Avenue entrance provides access to the central Research and
Microfilm Research Rooms, which are open Mondays through Fridays from 8:45
a.m. to 10 p.m., and on Saturdays from 8:45 a.m. to 5:15 p.m.; the rooms are
closed on federal holidays.