Wikijunior:United States Charters of Freedom/National Archives and Records Administration

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The National Archives building in Washington, D.C.

The United States National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is an independent agency of the United States federal government charged with preserving and documenting government and historical records. It also works to increase public access to those documents. NARA is officially responsible for publishing acts of Congress, presidential proclamations and executive orders, and federal regulations. The agency often works closely with scholars to facilitate their studies. NARA is most famously known as the housing of the United States Charters of Freedom.

History[edit]

In the past, each branch and agency of the U.S. government was responsible for maintaining its own documents, which often resulted in the loss and destruction of records. Congress established the National Archives in 1934 to centralize federal record keeping, with the Archivist of the United States as its chief administrator. The National Archives was incorporated into the General Services Administration in 1949, but in 1985 it was made an independent agency known as NARA.

Most of the documents in the care of NARA are in the public domain, as works of the federal government are excluded from copyright protection. However, some documents that have come into the care of NARA from other sources may still be protected by copyright or donor agreements. NARA also stores classified documents and its Information Security Oversight Office monitors and sets policy for the U.S. government's security classification system.

Facilities and exhibition[edit]

National Archives Building[edit]

The National Archives Building, known informally as Archives I, located north of the National Mall on Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C., opened as its original headquarters in 1935. It houses the Charters of Freedom: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. These are displayed to the public in the main chamber of the National Archives, which is called the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom. Flash photography of the documents is prohibited. There are no lines at the National Archives, and visitors are allowed to walk from document to document as they wish.

The National Archives Building also exhibits other important American historical documents such as the Louisiana Purchase and the Emancipation Proclamation, as well as collections of photography and other historically and culturally significant American artifacts.

National Archives at College Park[edit]

Due to space constraints, NARA opened a second facility, known informally as Archives II, in 1994 at College Park, Maryland, where it is now based. There are also twelve Regional Archives facilities across the country and two major facilities in St. Louis, Missouri which comprise the National Personnel Records Center. However, the National Archives Building in downtown Washington, D.C. still contains such record collections as all existing Federal Census records, Ship Passenger Lists, military unit records from the American Revolution up to the Philippine-American War, records of the Confederate Government, the Freedmen's Bureau records and pension/land records.

1973 National Archives Fire[edit]

A disastrous fire that occurred at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC), a facility controlled by NARA, in St. Louis, Missouri, on July 12, 1973. NPRC, the custodian of military service records, lost approximately 16-18 million Official Military Personnel Files as a result of the fire.

Affected Records[edit]

The affected record collections are described below.

  • U.S. Army personnel discharged November 1, 1912, to January 1, 1960
  • U.S. Air Force personnel discharged September 25, 1947, to January 1, 1964, with names alphabetically after Hubbard, James E.
  • Some U.S. Army Reserve personnel who received final discharge as late as 1964
  • Various U.S. Navy, United States Coast Guard, and U.S. Marine Corps records which were out of file and were caught in the section of the building which experienced the most damage in the fire.

Cause of Fire[edit]

The exact cause of the 1973 National Archives Fire was never fully determined. An investigation in 1975 revealed that the affected floor, where the fire had started, had been under extreme temperature with little or no ventilation. It was speculated that air pressure on the floor had reached such a level that, combined with the very high temperatures in the enclosed space, the brittle and dry records began to catch fire. The investigation also did not rule out that the fire had been contributed to, if not directly started by, cigarette embers which were present in several trashcans.

Damage and Reconstruction[edit]

The 1973 fire destroyed the entire 6th floor of the National Personnel Records Center. Damage from the fire can still be seen today. In 1974, a massive reconstruction effort was begun to restore the service records which were destroyed in the 1973 fire. In most cases where a military record has been presumed destroyed, NPRC is able to reconstruct basic service information, such as military date of entry, date of discharge, character of service, and final rank.

Conspiracy Theories[edit]

In recent years, some conspiracy theories have emerged to explain the 1973 National Archives Fire. No such claims are taken very seriously by the United States government. Such conspiracy accusations include:

  • The Federal Government intentionally started the 1973 National Archives Fire as a cover to destroy unwanted military files, erase certain records from the Second World War, and to reduce budget costs by destroying a floor of an under budgeted federal building.
  • Agents of anti-government organizations broke into NPRC and started the 1973 fire as a terrorist attack.
  • The 1973 Fire did not happen at all, and that the explanation of a fire destroying millions of military records is a lie conceived by the Federal Government to cut costs and avoid public requests for the older military files.
  • The Church of Scientology started the fire in an attempt to destroy embarrassing records relating to L. Ron Hubbard's World War II service. The basis of this conspiracy theory seems to stem from the later incidents that occurred during Operation Snow White, and from the coincidence that certain records were only destroyed alphabetically from "Hubbard, James E" (although Hubbard had served in the Navy, not the Air Force).

Resources[edit]