Kojo and Tom Sherwood chat with D.C. Council Member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large)
District of Columbia Archives has documents and objects dating back to 1792, including everything from a portrait of Frederick Douglass to Francis Scott Key’s original will. The archives have long been under-resourced, lacking a central facility or any modern equipment for storing digital materials. Long-stalled plans to centralize and update the archives are now underway, and a newly formed group calling itself Friends of D.C. Archives are joining in.
- Cynthia Brock-Smith Secretary of the District of Columbia
- Trudy Peterson Co-Chair, Friends of DC Archives
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the Broadcast, D.C.'s Jazz History and the U-Street clubs that were the heart of black Washington for decades. But first, another aspect of D.C.'s history. D.C.'s Archives include everything from land deeds to tax assessments dating back to 1792. And it's not just dry, government documents. There's Francis Scott Key's original will, a portrait of Frederick Douglass.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut for a long time now, the archives have been under resourced. They lack a central facility or even the ability to store digital material. A newly formed group, calling itself Friends of DC Archives, hopes to help. Joining us in studio now is Cynthia Brock-Smith, secretary of the District of Columbia. Cynthia Brock-Smith, thank you for joining us.
MS. CYNTHIA BROCK-SMITHThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Dr. Trudy Peterson. She is co-chair of the Friends of DC Archives. She was formerly the Acting Archivist of the United States. Trudy Peterson, thank you for joining us.
DR. TRUDY PETERSONThank you.
NNAMDICynthia, tell us about the archives. What's in there?
BROCK-SMITHThe archives is a treasure-trove of thousands of cubic feet of historically -- historical and permanent, invaluable records of the District of Columbia. The Office of Public Records Archives and Library of Government Information is responsible for maintaining all of the legal documents and publications of the District of Columbia. So we have everything from the wills of George Washington, through Frederick Douglass and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.
BROCK-SMITHWe have marriage records, death certificates, building permits, incorporation records, all of the government documents that have been created since the beginning of this government.
NNAMDIAnd it's not just dry, government documents. There are historical artifacts too. Can you talk about some of those objects? There's the portrait of Frederick Douglass and the -- you got an electric chair from Lorton Reformatory?
BROCK-SMITHYes. We have the electric chair that was used in Lorton Reformatory from 1927 to 1957. We also have recently acquired an actual slave ankle ball-and-chain. We have slave journals from...
NNAMDITwo objects I'll be avoiding.
BROCK-SMITHWe have a statue of Abraham Lincoln. It's an eight-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln as a young man. We have all types of paintings and artifacts from the history of the District of Columbia, including slave journals. As you may remember from some of the earlier movies and writings, slaves whose masters visited District of Columbia, particularly members of Congress, would consign their slaves to D.C. jail and so we -- while they were doing business in the District of Columbia. So we have those records in the D.C. Archives.
NNAMDITrudy, you were involved in D.C.'s Archives back when you headed the National Archives. Why do you consider the D.C. Archives to be so important?
PETERSOND.C. Archives are important not only for the citizens of the District, but this is the Capital City of the country. So we have a larger responsibility here. What happens in D.C. has ramifications throughout our country and, because of our position in the world, throughout the world as well. The way we treat our fire department, the way we treat our police department, these are all things that we have to be aware are looked at very carefully around the world. That's also true of the way we treat our archives.
NNAMDIAs the Acting Archivist for the U.S., you were responsible for a big portion of the D.C. Archives. How come?
PETERSONBefore home rule, of course, the records of the District of Columbia needed to go somewhere. And they went to the U.S. National Archives. And my very first management job at the National Archives was to be responsible for the D.C. Archives. After the 1985 Act was passed, establishing an archives for the District, one of my staff members actually went to be the first archivist.
PETERSONAnd we worked out an agreement between the District Archives and the National Archives saying that if the District could have a proper facility that would preserve and be secure, we would transfer the records of the government of the District of Columbia to the District. And unfortunately, all these years later, that's never happened.
NNAMDINevertheless, the District of Columbia, as you mentioned earlier, has, oh, 50,000 cubic feet of records, maybe 45 miles of records. Where are those documents stored at this point?
BROCK-SMITHWe have over 200,000 cubic feet of records. And they are stored in more than 20 locations around the region, primarily at the facility at Naylor Court, 1300 Naylor Court. We have our historical archives with about 50,000 cubic feet of records. We have another 150,000 cubic feet of records at the National -- Washington National Record Center in Suitland, run by the National Archives. And various agencies have used various private storage areas around the region for their records. And we are trying to consolidate all of those into one facility.
NNAMDIWho uses the archives and why?
BROCK-SMITHWell, there are a variety of people who use the archives: Genealogists who are trying to search their family history, lawyers who are doing research for clients on probate or wills or land records. If I'm looking the history of building permits on my property or history of my property in terms of who may have lived there, who owned the property, we have property records. We have the architectural records of most of the buildings in the District of Columbia, so it could be other government agencies or scholars, students. We have a variety of people who come to the archives. We serve over 55,000 requests a year.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking with Cynthia Brock-Smith, secretary of the District of Columbia, and Trudy Peterson, co-chair of the Friends of DC Archives. She was formerly the Acting Archivist of the United States. We'd like to hear from you. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Have you ever tapped the D.C. Archives or other archives here in D.C.? What was your experience like? Or what would you like to know about the D.C. Archives? 800-433-8850. You could send email to email@example.com. Or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there. Or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow.
NNAMDITrudy, you testified last week before the Council on the cities archives. And I can see testimony of that hearing online. Are those videos being stored in D.C. Archives?
PETERSONNo. One of the problems of D.C. Archives is it has no facility to store modern, electronic records, whether in audiovisual format or a tweet. Your previous discussion was with the police and the use of electronic media, especially social media.
NNAMDII'm glad you were listening.
PETERSONWe have absolutely no ability to store that in the D.C. Archives. And yet it is essential, because police records are an essential part of any city archives.
NNAMDIJonetta Rose Barra wrote a piece about this last week in her Washington Post blog, that the city cannot store any digital records is one problem. What are some of the other issues with the D.C. Archives, Cynthia?
BROCK-SMITHSome of our major issues are infrastructure related. We have a deteriorating condition in our historical archives. We have a building that's an 1880s concrete stable. The District moved the archives there in the 1980s. And there hasn't really been much investment since then. And in addition to the aging infrastructure, I mentioned the various multiple repositories of records around the region that our staff have to go to whenever there's a request for records. And we've mentioned the lack of technology. We have a limited online access to our records. And our hope is to make many of our records accessible online and more readily available to the community.
NNAMDITrudy, you helped found the Friends of DC Archives. What's the idea?
PETERSONThe idea is to try to support the secretary and the government in any way possible to ensure that this opportunity, where we have actually money set aside to build a building, is not missed. This is the best opportunity we've had in 30 years. We can't let it go past.
NNAMDICynthia, you say the history of D.C. is the history of the nation. And Trudy mentioned earlier that this is the nation's capital. But what do you mean by that?
BROCK-SMITHWhat I mean by that is, our records go back to the founding of this nation's capital, 1790. And our records display the social, cultural history of the District of Columbia as well as the evolution of the federal government here, because we are the seat -- we are the nation's capital.
BROCK-SMITHSo in searching my family history, I'm not only looking at the genealogical records, but I'm looking at records of what actually happened in the District of Columbia, the issues of slavery and abolition -- the Abolitionist Movement and emancipation of all impacted families here. So this history's intertwined and cannot be separated. And that's why this is a precious resource for our residents as well as our nation.
NNAMDIWhat's interesting is that these are the records of all D.C. agencies. How does that work and who decides what gets preserved?
BROCK-SMITHWell, there's a Public Records Act that mandates that all government executive-branch agencies provide their records through the Office of Public Records. We have a Library of Government Information where we maintain every published document, or printed document, by any District executive-branch agency. We also, on request, manage the records of the Superior Court and the D.C. Court of Appeals and the educational system and the D.C. Council. The Superior Court is our largest user of public records.
BROCK-SMITHWe maintain those records. And every time there's a request, if you're doing your history or you need to research a court case, then our people have to go and retrieve that record from the Washington National Records Center. So we are involved on a daily basis on the retrieval and restoration of records from around this government.
NNAMDIWe have a question from Sam in Fairfax, Va. Sam, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SAMYes, Kojo. It's a great show today. And I'm very curious if your guests could tell your listeners about a former museum of Washington that used to be in the Heurich Mansion there near Dupont Circle. And then I believe their assets were -- or their collection was moved to the former library there, just south of the -- that beautiful light marble building just south of the new Convention Center. I think it's New York Avenue and Ninth Street.
NNAMDILet me ask Trudy Peterson.
PETERSONThat's the Historical Society of Washington D.C.
PETERSONAnd they just have a new executive director. If you take a look at a very recent interview in The Washington Post, you'll see his interview and his plans for the facility.
NNAMDIAnd you can find that at the website of The Washington Post. Sam, thank you very much for your call. Cynthia Brock-Smith, money for a new facility was first allocated 10 years ago. Can you talk about that and what's happened in the intervening years?
BROCK-SMITHThe money for an archives facility was first allocated during the Williams administration. And over the years, with the various priorities of different administrations, the project never went forward. However, I'm pleased that Mayor Gray has made this investment. He and I both are native Washingtonians and we are determined that this project is an important project not only for the residents but for this nation. So I'm hopeful that it will be done.
NNAMDIHas a new facility or location been identified yet?
BROCK-SMITHNo. Over the years, there have been various studies on different locations. So what we're doing now with the Archives Advisory Group and the Friends of the Archives, we have engaged a consultant who is an expert in archival management who will work with us to design the operations of a new archives facility. And that collaboration will result in us engaging an architectural and engineering firm who can help with either building a new building or renovating an existing government building.
NNAMDITrudy, you've been involved in helping to modernize and create archives around the country. What's needed here in D.C. at this point?
PETERSONThe essential thing we need is planning. We have to plan for what we want this institution to be. What do we want out of our DC archives? And from that we can then determine what we need in a facility. Cynthia is perhaps too kind to mention it but she also desperately needs staff. There is not enough staff to manage the facility that they have now. We have to be able to increase not only the building and the equipment but we have to increase staffing.
NNAMDIAnd we move onto Carl in Washington, D.C. Carl, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CARLHi. From '67 to '73 we had an appointed city council. When the first city council elected one came in, Dave Clark put a law in called the statutes at large at the city among others. And it provided that all of the regulations and resolutions of the prior council be kept and published. From my knowledge that never happened, that it wasn't published. And we may have lost them, from what I can understand. And I was hoping that the archives could shed some light on this.
NNAMDIDave Clark was a Ward 1 council member, then chair person of the council. He is not deceased but Cynthia Brock-Smith.
BROCK-SMITHYes. The Office of Public Records and Archives has copies of early engineering department studies, the early proceedings of the commissioners and the appointed council. They have not been bound and put out on public display but those records are available for research at the archives. We're open Monday through Friday 10:00 to 3:00. You can make an appointment with our archivists and we'll be glad to assist with that research.
NNAMDICarl, thank you very much for your call. We move on to Paul in Washington, D.C. Paul, you're turn.
PAULYou just answered a little part of my question, but I have been working on a centennial research project for a building in D.C. And I have found that there's some things in the Washington (word?) room and there's some things at National Archives and some things in the Library of Congress and then some of the things that are listed are not always available immediately to the general public. What is the best resource now -- and I really wish you good luck on getting the building built quickly so it is in one place, but until it is what's your advice to people who are trying to find some things that are more disparate?
BROCK-SMITHWell, if those documents are government documents in the possession of the D.C. archives then my advice would be to either send an email to archives.dc.gov (sic) or call the archives at 202-671-1105 and they can point you in the right direction. As I said, we get 55,000 requests a year but our archivists now generally where every government document is. And if it's in our possession we can handle it.
BROCK-SMITHThey also are aware of the various collections throughout the city, some holdings of the Historical Society. There are items at George Washington University and the Morris Ben Garn (sp?) Library that are items that are not government documents but may assist you with your research.
NNAMDIPaul, thank you very much for your call. Trudy, the Martin Luther King Library, the city's flagship library, has been mentioned as a possible repository. And it would seem a natural place.
PETERSONIt's too small. There is no way that you can get the quantity of records that we are talking about into the Martin Luther King Library. You would have to take over the entire library building and it still wouldn't be large enough. It's much more sensible, I believe, to build a structure from the ground up that is indeed ready to take the records that exist and has a plan for taking the records that will come in the future because archives expand by their nature. The government goes on. It creates records as a byproduct of doing its actions. And archives expand.
NNAMDICynthia Brock-Smith, we're almost out of time but inquiring people want to know, what does the Secretary of the District of Columbia do beyond overseeing the D.C. archives?
BROCK-SMITHWell, that's a great question because I often get a question, what do you do? Who is the secretary and what is your responsibility? I am the chief protocol officer for the District of Columbia and manages the relationship between the district government and the diplomatic community. But there are also other responsibilities including commissioning notaries public for the District of Columbia, authenticating documents for national and international use. We also have a ceremonial services unit that produces (word?) congratulatory letters from the mayor to residents and entities in the District of Columbia.
BROCK-SMITHWe are the liaison with the diplomatic community to handle constituent services requests that -- where the diplomatic international properties are impacting the local community. So we have a various diverse portfolio in the...
NNAMDITrudy Peterson, you're right, she needs a lot of help.
NNAMDICynthia Brock-Smith is the Secretary of the District of Columbia. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIDr. Trudy Peterson is co-chair of the Friends of D.C. Archives. She was formerly the acting archivist of the United States. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, D.C.'s jazz history and the U Street clubs were the heart of black Washington for decades. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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