Academic journal asks: Will the last archivist to leave Seattle please turn out the lights?

Oct 19, 2020, 2:12 PM | Updated: 3:31 pm
National Archives Seattle...
The National Archives in Seattle. (Feliks Banel, KIRO Radio)
(Feliks Banel, KIRO Radio)

A prestigious academic journal is the latest outlet to publish a piece finding fault with the secretive process to shut down the Seattle branch of the National Archives and Records Administration, and sell the real estate where the popular facility has stood for nearly 60 years.

The latest issue of the Journal of Western Archives includes a lengthy article with the snarky, Boeing Bust-referencing title, “Will the Last Archivist to Leave Seattle Please Turn Out the Lights.” It’s co-authored by University of Missouri graduate student Megan Llewellyn and a professor at the school named Dr. Sarah Buchanan.

Llewellyn, who is from the Seattle area, began working on the piece earlier this year, not long after KIRO Radio broke the news that the longtime local facility had been targeted for closure and sale by an esoteric federal agency called the Public Buildings Reform Board (PBRB).

If the sale and closure goes through, priceless archival materials related to federal and tribal history in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska — and currently stored and made accessible at the facility near Magnuson Park – will be moved to other NARA facilities hundreds of miles away.

Only a fraction of the materials stored in Seattle are currently digitized, and necessary scanning and other steps to digitize the remaining materials and make them accessible after the move could take decades – while some larger items like maps and bound books might never be properly scanned.

The controversial decision – officially made by the White House Office of Management and Budget based on recommendations by the PBRB – remains the subject of a number of legal actions by Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, while Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman has convened a series of meetings to explore alternatives to the archives leaving the Evergreen State.

Conducting interviews with Seattle National Archives staff, interviews with PBRB and other officials, and examining the facility’s history – and the media coverage surrounding the controversial decision – led Llewellyn and Buchanan to a novel conclusion: Not only was the decision made without public or other stakeholder input, the criteria used by the PBRB to make the decision was also fundamentally flawed.

The decision to close and sell the Seattle facility of the National Archives “was made by people who are experts in real estate and business [who] don’t necessarily understand archiving,” Llewellyn told KIRO Radio late last week.

“I think there was a huge lack of understanding in this decision of what archives is, and what they do, and what they’re meant for,” Llewellyn continued, specifically pointing out the criteria by which the National Archives’ Seattle real estate was determined to be both a “high-value asset” and “under-utilized.”

“A lot of the decisions and metrics that were applied in the decision to close the archives were based on metrics developed in industries that have nothing to do with archiving,” Llewellyn said, explaining that the value of the archives facility in that specific location, offering access to all the priceless materials it contains along with knowledgeable assistance from longtime expert staff, didn’t register for the PBRB in what was purely an examination of the market value of the land.

“The PBRB, they didn’t look at this decision from an archivist’s perspective at all,” Llewellyn said, or from that of the amateur and professional historians, tribal members, genealogists and others who depend on the Seattle facility.

Since there was no public input before the decision to close and sell was made, no archivist – or historian, genealogist, tribal member or other individual with an “archivist’s perspective” – was allowed to weigh in before it was too late.

Bottomline, says Megan Llewellyn, beyond the utter lack of public process, there’s no excuse for the misapplication of the federal legislation that gave PBRB its mandate to dispose of federal real estate, but which also included clear rules.

“They do have to make their rules and their recommendations based on the purpose and the mission of the organization,” Llewellyn said, which in the case of the Seattle real estate means the National Archives and Records Administration’s mission, of which “public access” is a key tenet:

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) drives openness, cultivates public participation, and strengthens our nation’s democracy through public access to high-value government records. The National Archives’ mission is to provide public access to federal government records. Public access to government records allows Americans to claim their rights of citizenship, hold their government accountable, and understand their history so they can participate more effectively in their government.

In recommending to close and sell the Seattle branch of the National Archives, says Megan Llewellyn, the obscure Public Buildings Reform Board “applied their tools, and they’re great tools in certain circumstances.”

“Just not in this one,” Llewellyn said.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Academic journal asks: Will the last archivist to leave Seattle please turn out the lights?