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First 'panic,' then a battle to keep the National Archives in Seattle

Chelsea Craig says that when she heard that the building housing the National Archives in Seattle was set to be sold, her first reaction was “panic.”

“We better get here and get as much information as we can,” she remembers thinking.

Craig is a teacher and member of the Tulalip Tribes. She had been planning for some time to make a trip to the archives, across Sand Point Way from Magnuson Park, to search for materials related to the tribe’s history.

The archives hold about 56,000 cubic feet of documents and artifacts — most are not digitized. But the Trump administration has announced that the huge building will be closed and all the documents sent to California.

Historians, genealogists, and researchers are now fighting to keep those records here in the Northwest.

The archives' value is obvious to Craig. In the public research room, she found old microfilm containing images of documents from the 1800s. They were handwritten notes describing the tribes' negotiations over treaty rights.

“I’m excited. I’m super excited,” she said as she held the box of film tightly in her hands.

Craig said the prospect that these materials will leave the region is heartbreaking.

“Personally, I believe when I come here, I see my ancestors on paper, their spirits are tied to that. Our ancestors are here and they need us to hear and see their story,” she said.

Reporter Deborah Wang discusses the battle over the National Archives in Seattle

Reporter Deborah Wang discusses the battle over the National Archives in Seattle with KUOW's Kim Malcom.

Why is it being sold?

The archives occupies a small section of a giant World War II-era building that was once an aircraft assembly plant. It shares space with the Federal Records Center, which uses most of the building to warehouse government documents.

The property is set on 10 acres near Seattle’s Magnuson Park, in one of the priciest areas in the city.

Last year, the property was quietly placed on a list of federal properties around the country that were to be sold. That was the work of the Public Buildings Reform Board, which was established by Congress in the waning days of the Obama administration. Its mandate is to dispose of unneeded or underutilized federal properties, and to streamline the cumbersome process by which the federal government culls its surplus holdings.

The board's first job was to assemble a list of high-value properties. Those sales across the country are expected to fetch up to $750 million.

The properties were chosen quietly, with no announcements or public hearings in the Northwest. Most people didn’t hear about the list until just weeks before it was approved by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, when radio reporter Feliks Banel from KIRO Radio broke the news.

U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal represents the district where the archives are located. The Public Buildings Reform Board did tell her office they were considering selling the property. According to Jayapal, her staff assumed the board would first reach out to the local community.

“You’ve got to have a public process," Jayapal said her staff told the board.

Jayapal's staff asked if they could help recommend places to go and community leaders to speak with. "And they said great, we will follow up with you. And the next thing we heard the facility is closing,” Jayapal added.

When the list of recommended closures was published, members of Congress from across the Pacific Northwest signed a letter to the Office of Management and Budget opposing the sale. According to Jayapal, they did not receive a response from the agency, which went on to quickly approve the sale of the 12 properties just days later.

Public outcry

Since the sale was announced, elected officials, historians, tribes, educators and researchers have protested the decision.

"This resource represents an incredible breadth of history of our region and its loss will greatly impact the people who live here," wrote Jennifer Kilmer, director of the Washington State Historical Society.

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson is considering a lawsuit. Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a Republican, has created a web page with the latest closure information that urges residents to contact their members of Congress. Wyman is in charge of the Washington state's archives and believes the federal archives should not be moved out of the state.

“I think we’re kind of getting fired up,” Wyman said. “People that are stewards of protecting records ... are very passionate about it. We know the importance of our history and more importantly that people need to be able to access that and be able to hold documents in their hands and look at them and read them. That’s what our job is.”

A new building that will house the State Archives and Library is now being planned for Tumwater. Wyman suggests there might be a way for the federal government to partner with the state to build a new federal archives on an adjacent site.

What next?

Since the closure announcement, archives staff say that there has been a big increase in the number of people coming to the facility and asking for research assistance.

caption: Volunteer Hao Jang Chang looks through a file from the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act at the National Archives in Seattle.
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Volunteer Hao Jang Chang looks through a file from the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act at the National Archives in Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Deborah Wang

Among the regulars there are a group of volunteers who gather every Thursday to pour through files relating to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. That law banned the immigration of Chinese laborers and severely restricted the movement of Chinese residents in and out of the United States.

There are 50,000 of those files in the Seattle archives — one of the largest collections in the country. They contain photos, biographical information and interrogation notes which have been critical to Chinese Americans looking for information about their ancestors.

The group has been working for years to index those files, and volunteer Trish Hackett Nicola worries they won’t be able to finish before the archives are closed.

"We've spent so much time doing this and we haven't finished the project," she said. "And the records aren't going to be accessible. We can't move to Southern California to finish it. So it's heartbreaking."

Volunteer Rhonda Farrar is half Chinese and half Tlingit Indian. She found her own father's files in the archives, and says she wants other people be able to look for theirs as well.

"This has put me into a fight mode," she said. "Anything worth having is worth fighting for."

If the federal government's plan goes forward, the property will be sold within the next 18 months. The Archives have another three years to complete the sale and to move to a new location.

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