WASHINGTON _ Meet some of the world’s most powerful people: the appraisal archivists of the National Archives and Records Administration.
Since 1934, they’ve been foraging through trillions of federal documents, films, maps, charts, photographs, recordings, pictures and digital data–choosing what to keep in our collective national memory. Only three percent of all that survives the appraisal archivists’ keen eye.
But David Langbart doesn’t see it as power. “It’s a sense of responsibility–an obligation, a burden,” he said.
Langbart is one of 28 appraisal archivists who work at the National Archives in College Park, Md. Twelve more are scattered across the country. They decide how long records are kept by federal agencies and which come to the National Archives for permanent storage. The profession’s highlights, say the archivists, include documenting the story of the U.S. government and its people and discovering the occasional treasure trove.
At College Park, Langbart’s office is a gray and utilitarian cubicle colored by an inflatable rendition of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” But often he’s not there. He spends much of his time visiting federal agencies–in his case, usually intelligence agencies like the National Security Agency, CIA, and Department of State.
On this particular day, he’s carrying his work with him in a thick yellow envelope stuffed with National Reconnaissance Office secrets. But getting to see often-classified documents has its downside. “Unfortunately,” Langbart said, “a lot of what I’m doing these days, I can’t tell my friends about.”
Other times, he trades the suit and tie for a ratty shirt, jeans and worker’s apron when visiting storage areas with retired records. “I go sit on the floor,” he said, “and–as I put it–muck around in history.”
As the archivists describe it, their work goes like this:
Federal agencies send appraisal archivists lists of records and recommendations on how long to keep them. Appraisal archivists study the lists, consider the quality of the records, check if they’re organized well enough to be used and ask for public comments on the records’ value. If the chief Archivist of the United States approves, the archivists then make sure temporary records are destroyed after their allotted lifetime, which can be decades long. They bring permanent records to the National Archives, where they stay–as appraisal archivist Marie Allen puts it–for “as long as the Republic stands.”
Allen describes the job with a touch of poetry: “Finding that very precious needle–that golden needle in the haystack,” she said, “is one of the primary concerns of our office. And we pursue it every way we can.”
“It’s not monetary value–it’s far more important than gold, because the records of the United States are irreplaceable,” she added. “If the records are destroyed here, there’s no amount of money that can replace them.”
Most of the time, the archivists agree, the decision for permanent storage is clear-cut. But if not, Allen said, they usually play it safe and accept the records into the Archives. “I can’t think of any case in my recent memory when I’ve regretted a decision to destroy,” she said, “because generally when we make a decision to destroy, it is very, very firmly grounded.”
The profession brings together people with more than a common passion for history. Most have graduate degrees, usually in history and occasionally in political science. Their job, said appraisal archivist Larry Baume, requires excellent analytical skills, a sense of historical context and a rapport with federal agencies.
The art of appraisal archiving, practitioners say, does not follow one formula. Instead, they operate with a general purpose: “How can we best find records that tell the story of who, what, where, when and how this government interacted with the citizens?” said Baume, who often works with scientific federal agencies.
Records the Archives normally would throw out, said Baume, are usually mundane materials such as motor vehicle operation and maintenance files, shipping documents and purchase orders.
But what’s in federal records is sometimes astonishing. There are the “stories,” for example, of a partially petrified hamburger kept as evidence in a court case, recalled appraisal archivist Jennie Guilbaud. “I have seen a mini-Bible with a bullet hole in it,” she said. “And I did have to send two World War II documents to the conservation lab because they were stuck together by what we later found out to be a condom.” With true archivist’s precision, she added, “I can’t vouch for the period authenticity of the condom, though, but it was old.”
Often, too, while digging through the reams of federal records, appraisal archivists will hit a historic prize. Among Langbart’s finds, for example, in burrowing through the intelligence agencies’ files: Some records from the post-World War II occupation of Berlin that related to the imprisonment of Hitler second-in-command Rudolph Hess in Spandau prison; and a 1945 despatch (Eds. Note. This is correct spelling of despatch) from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to his then-Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, recommending action on refugees during the Holocaust.
The payoff, Langbart said, is seeing those records put to use. Some of the records he’s worked with has been used by researchers and even referred to in books. “It’s always extremely gratifying,” Langbart said, “to see the records that you’ve appraised, the records you’ve gotten into the Archives-to see people actually use them.”
The majority of records that in the Archives are open to the public. In a way, archivist Baume said, that makes appraisal archivists also guardians of democracy. “We don’t often stop and think what the democratic principles are that operates,” he said, “and how the government is accountable to the people and ways in which it demonstrates its accountability.” But, Baume said, “One of the ways is the National Archives.”