Tales of the Country

How Tokyo Rose, "Machine Gun" Kelly, and Amelia Earhart are endangered by money-saving moves at the National Archives in San Bruno

"It became a funding issue," says Sharon Roadway, NARA Pacific regional administrator. "Preservation is a major problem. We do things based on need, try to do the worst documents."

Here's the life span of government records: Every federal agency has a schedule -- a document retention and destruction plan -- that determines how long the agency keeps certain records. After some period of time, records (still considered temporary) move into NARA buildings for storage, though they belong to the agency that created the records.

How quickly federal records move into storage varies wildly. Income tax returns from this region can land in San Bruno within days after taxpayers file them, but district court records don't get there for years. After records arrive at a NARA facility, they are stored for another specified period of time -- as long as 25 to 30 years. Then, most of the records are destroyed.

But some special records -- the 3 to 5 percent of the government's records that agency heads and archivists determine have permanent historical value -- move onto the shelves in the archives. After they are opened, indexed, and placed in acid-free files, they become available to the public.

The records -- particularly those records that attract significant attention, such as the Alcatraz files and declassified government documents -- arrive en masse, often following some lobbying effort to get them released. So all other work gets put on hold to process those files to meet public demand.

Meanwhile, the bugs continue to munch and the pages continue to crack and fade away on the vast majority of records that just sit, waiting in their boxes to be rescued.

Jason Newman has been making the drive back and forth from his home in Davis to the National Archives in San Bruno at least three times a week for more than a year now. Newman is working on a doctoral dissertation on the tribal history of a particular Indian reservation in Northern California.

"I found more than I thought," he says.
NARA is home to records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, dating back to the late 1800s. The files contain official reports, correspondence, and documentation. They also hold a random assortment of photos, drawings, essays, and reports from the boarding schools where Native American children were taught. There are letters between home and school, and between tribal members and the government.

"I'm trying to find the Indian voice," Newman says. "You can't do original research without original records. Ninety-nine percent of the time that's all that exists."

For instance, there are 150 boxes of stuff pertaining to the Round Valley Indian Reservation. They hold a wealth of information about a particularly dark part of American history. A 1902 letter from a commissioner at the Department of the Interior's Office of Indian Affairs to the superintendent of the Round Valley Indian Reservation reads:

"The wearing of long hair by the male population of your agency is not in keeping with the advancement they are making, or will soon be expected to make, in civilization. ... On many of the reservations the Indians of both sexes paint, claiming that it keeps the skin warm in winter and cool in summer; but instead, this paint melts when the Indian perspires and runs down into his eyes. ... Persons who have given considerable thought and investigation to the subject are satisfied that this custom causes the majority of the cases of blindness among the Indians of the United States.

"You are therefore directed to induce your male Indians to cut their hair, and both sexes to stop painting. ... Employment, supplies, etc. should be withdrawn until they do comply and if they become obstreperous about the matter a short confinement in the guard-house at hard labor, with shorn hair, should furnish a cure ....

"The wearing of citizens clothing, instead of the Indian costume and blanket, should be encouraged. Indian dances and so-called Indian feasts should be prohibited. In many cases these dances and feasts are simply subterfuges to cover degrading acts and to disguise immoral purposes. You are directed to use your best efforts in the suppression of these evils."

Dan Nealand is eating his lunch at the desk where he always eats his lunch, surrounded by puddles of paper in the shadow of a computer monitor. He's also holding court on the subject of the government's memory, as is his wont.

"You can't really be accountable unless you have these records that can say how these programs affected people," the coordinator of the National Archives in San Bruno says, growing more passionate with each word. "For instance, the Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969 birthed the whole citizen environmental movement. We only have 11 little, measly files on this whole incident that started the entire environmental movement."

Nealand is not just an archivist. He's a living poster of an archivist, from the gray curly hair that sits in no particular order, along for the ride with his brain, down to the well-worn, comfortable shoes. He shuffles. He comes in early. He shows up when he's supposed to be on vacation. He knows the date that everything of any consequence in history happened. And he is annoyingly methodical, constantly overcome with the frustration of trying to do the right thing in a system that is not set up for it.

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