What Are the National Archives?
Have you heard a lot about “NARA” in the news lately and wondered what it is?
It’s not every day that the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) makes headlines. Still, in recent months, they’ve shown up several times because they pursued certain presidential records that allegedly weren’t turned over to NARA as law and tradition dictates. Many people have never heard of, or paused to think about, NARA, so here’s a quick primer on what it is, what it does, and why it matters.
Sign the pledge to vote for libraries!
What Is NARA?
NARA describes itself as “the nation’s record keeper.” It’s most famous for being the repository of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Formed in 1934 by President Franklin Roosevelt, NARA holds priceless records such as the Declaration of Independence and significant archives of various aspects of American life and government. The archives include documentation of military service for millions of Americans, papers for immigrants who became U.S. citizens, slave ship manifests, journals of polar explorations, and the document signed “Bonaparte,” which was the Louisiana Purchase Treaty.
A large part of NARA’s work is around government documents. Overall, the archives keep about 2–5 percent of papers produced each year, deemed necessary enough to stay permanently. That may not sound like much, but currently, that means NARA has:
- 3.28 billion pages of records
- 10 million maps, charts, and architectural and engineering drawings
- 44.4 million photographs, digital images, filmstrips, and graphics
- 40 million aerial photographs
- 563,000 reels of motion pictures
- Nearly a million video and audio recordings
- 1,323 terabytes of electronic data
How they’re deemed necessary to save is determined by whether they’re essential to the ongoing work of the government, have value to long-term research, or provide information valuable to U.S. citizens.
What Does NARA Do?
NARA not only holds these invaluable documents of all types, it catalogs and curates them and provides access depending on security levels. The records range from available to the general public to highly classified government documents. That means the work is not only storing the documents but determining who has access to see them and keeping the classified records safe from sources that shouldn’t see them. It also performs ongoing evaluations to see which documents may no longer have value in the abovementioned three categories. It follows strict protocols for the safe disposal of records no longer considered worth keeping.
The archives are located in 15 states and the District of Columbia and include several presidential libraries.
Why Is NARA Important?
Having a central source for literally billions of records about government and U.S. history is vital to preserving that history and knowledge. It’s also critical in helping keep national security efforts in order by providing highly secured methods of maintaining classified materials that need to be preserved. Still, it must not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands (for example, spies from other countries or hostile foreign governments).
It’s also essential to have these available for citizens to preserve their rights and entitlements and to hold elected officials accountable for their actions. Documenting the nation’s history protects the country from revisionist accounts that could drastically rewrite that history to villainize some and glorify others.
Various sites are open to the public, either by appointment or through regular open hours. NARA has a robust set of online exhibits as well. For more information about what services NARA provides and who has access to them, visit their website.
#librarymarketers: Enjoy this story? Want to use it for your library newsletter, blog, or social media? This article is published under Creative Commons License Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International and is free to edit and use with attribution. Please cite “EveryLibrary on medium.com/everylibrary.
This work by EveryLibrary is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0