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Researchers Feel the Pinch Of National Archives Cuts

By Jacqueline Trescott

Washington Post Staff Writer

Saturday, November 11, 2006; C01

The National Archives has drastically curtailed its evening and weekend hours, a move that will make life tougher for thousands of authors, historians and other researchers.

The Archives is the chief repository for federal records. Faced with rising costs, Chief Archivist Allen Weinstein and senior staff reduced the hours that research rooms are open by a third at both the Archives building on Pennsylvania Avenue NW and the massive Archives II center in College Park. The changes took effect Oct. 2.

Independent researcher Orah Hurst is one of those affected. She has spent a dozen years combing through the records of Navy ships for lawyers representing people who developed lung cancer after working with asbestos. Until last month she hired students and other freelancers to help dig through papers and copy essential documents during the Archives' evening hours.

"I had three people, sometimes four people, who worked in the [evening and weekend] hours. Now I don't have that," Hurst says.

Researchers who depend on the Archives for firsthand, intimate use of its billions of government records are also dismayed by a reduction in the number of times during the day that researchers can request materials. Most days, researchers can ask for documents four times. In the past, it was five.

Archives officials say they made the cuts to eliminate an anticipated $12 million budget gap created by rising expenses, including paying for heightened security requirements that were imposed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

In the past, the archives stayed open 60 hours a week. The original plan cut that to 40 hours, eliminating almost all evening and Saturday hours. After complaints from researchers, the archivists restored hours on Thursday and Friday evenings and all day Saturday on the third week of each month -- giving researchers 52 hours during those weeks. "It is pretty difficult for people who have jobs during the day and people who come from out of state and out of the country to use the Archives," says Susan Nusbaum Molye, the local representative of the Association of Professional Genealogists.

The Archives' managers said they wanted to avoid cutting hours and tried to balance the $283 million budget with a hiring freeze, an early retirement buyout and other cuts to avoid going into debt. But that wasn't enough.

In addition to cutting hours this fall, the Archives is trimming the number of specialized archivists who help researchers navigate the ocean of paper. Of the specialists helping researchers, seven archivists took early retirement and will not be replaced. Two others were temporarily reassigned.

"Access to specialized knowledge is being eroded by attrition and the hiring freeze. The traditional way the Archives transferred that knowledge is through an apprenticeship model. When you don't hire people, and you have people leaving and you have changed the logistics and you have limited access to particular archivists, that starts having an effect on us. There is a lot of informal knowledge at the Archives," says Brian W. Martin, executive vice president of History Associates, a firm that does historical research for litigation and other purposes.

Almost 45,000 people used original records and 15,000 used microfilm at both facilities in 2005.

Michael J. Kurtz, the assistant archivist for Records Services, says the new hours will not affect most research -- a 2005 survey found 77 percent of the work at the main building on Pennsylvania Avenue and in research rooms at College Park is done between 9 and 5 on weekdays. "Sixteen percent used evening hours and 7 percent used Saturdays," he said.

The Archives is a major stop for professional and amateur historians. Its historical holdings range from the Declaration of Independence to census records and troop rosters. The Archives houses the famous photographs of Ansel Adams and Mathew Brady and many historic films.

The records at Archives II, the collections in College Park, cover 1.5 million cubic feet, about the equivalent of 3,300 football fields. The shelves cover 530 miles and it can take 30 minutes just to walk back through the corridors to retrieve a file.

At the six-story facility the researchers form a tight-knit community. Most are professionals working for lawyers and others -- gathering material for such things as lawsuits over Agent Orange or pending confirmation hearings. There are also historians and many genealogists, looking at such items as Granddad's military record.

Jan Alpert, the president of the National Genealogical Society, found some records for Thomas D. Nutter, her great-great-great-great-grandfather, who fought in the War of 1812. She located his pay records and extensive family information in the pension forms his widow filed. "I would not have found those records if they weren't being saved," said Alpert, who would like to see the Archives open more hours, not fewer. "We have a wonderful system, but it has to be accessible."

Because the Archives' holdings are unique, researchers have few other alternatives.

"Every single day I am touching actual Lincoln documents," says Karen S. Needles, a researcher who runs the research assistance firm Documents on Wheels and specializes in the Lincoln era.

Carren Kaston, another independent researcher, has used the Archives for 20 years and is looking through State Department papers at the Archives on behalf of a historian in Turkey. "He is interested in aspects of the U.S.-Turkey relations, included shipment of armaments to Turkey leading up to World War II, the papers from the U.S. Embassy in Turkey on the first Turkish president, Ataturk. They don't exist anywhere else," says Kaston.

Kaston organized her day around the Archives' old hours.

"I would stay home in the day and call repositories and contacts around the country for one project. Then I would go to the Archives and do the work that needed to be done there," she says. She also says she has experienced unusual delays in recent weeks, once waiting for 2 1/2 hours for documents, instead of the typical one hour. "The whole rhythm of working there has been severely disrupted," she adds.

The Archives managers say one of their problems is the mounting number of records that have arrived over the past 10 years -- 3 billion pages.

As a result, the Archives is battling a backlog that is equal to the amount of material already catalogued. The situation is bad but not insurmountable. "We know everything we have. We know where it is and we know how to retrieve it," says James J. Hastings, the director of Access Programs.

To solve some of its access problems, the Archives joined government agencies in exploring public-private partnerships to digitize collections. In a pilot project with Google, the company converted 100 of the Archives films to digital form. In the past, the Archives main desk got about 200 requests a year for a specialty film such as "The Eagle Has Landed: The Flight of Apollo 11." A few weeks after it was available on the Internet, it had been downloaded 200,000 times.

"This opens us up to an audience that doesn't know we existed," says Hastings.

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