Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Closing of NARA - Pittsfield

The October 2011 Future?

By now, you’ve probably heard that David S. Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States, has announced the October 1, 2011 closing of the National Archives regional research facility in Pittsfield, Massachusetts  - the Silvio O. Conte National Records Center - under the benign heading of “cost-savings.” Originally buried way, way down in an earlier memo about other cost savings at NARA, the Pittsfield closing is now addressed in a separate statement that can be found on the National Archives website here. 

Now, while the Archivist himself seems to be one of the “good guys” and is doing some really good things in Washington, this is not one of them.  Frankly, this is the kind of decision that likely comes from somewhere much further down the chain of command and has been made because it makes “political” sense to a lower-level bureaucrat who had been tasked with finding some highly visible “cost savings”. 

Read the Archivist’s statement carefully.  It says that the two employees who staff the operation known in National Archives-speak as “The Pittsfield Annex”  “…will be offered positions at other facilities within the National Archives system and we will pay for their relocation expenses.” So, there will be little, if any savings, in personnel costs.  People will still be paid.  Then, the savings must therefore be coming from closing the building, right?   But yet, further down, the statement admits, “The closure of the Pittsfield Annex will not impact the records center operation in Pittsfield.  Bear in mind that the public research room that’s going to be closed occupies only a small part of the building in Pittsfield; the rest is used by NARA for record storage and will remain open. 

So - the building stays open, and the heat, light and other operations costs stay in place.  Only the part that directly serves the public – and genealogists in particular - is going away.

Could it be about appearances, not really about finance or logic? 

For many years, I used to be a bureaucrat, fairly high up the food chain, who reported directly to a chief elected official.  I know how to play this kind of budget game and, when necessary, how to game the system.  I recognize what’s in play here with a decision like this.

It lets the Archives administration say, “Look – we shut down one of our regional facilities. A whole facility, not just a part of a program! See, we’re really on board with this ‘do more with less’ idea.”  The Pittsfield closure becomes the bright, shiny new thing for NARA bureaucrats to wave in the faces of those who think that the Feds spend way too much on everything and who likely think that the National Archives itself is an unnecessary frill.

NARA – Pittsfield is a politically easy target, because it is a very small facility with only two paid employees, somewhat out of sight and off the urban beaten path, and very cheap to operate.  (It’s low-cost Pittsfield – not suburban Washington, after all.) Since NARA will continue to operate  the Pittsfield building for its other ongoing storage operations, there won’t be much – if any – savings in that regard. The building will still be heated, lighted and cleaned.  And since, as the memo says, the research room employees will be offered positions elsewhere within the system, where are the actual savings going to come from?  

 Pencils? Note pads? Toilet paper?

The actual dollar cost savings – in the great “Federal Spending” scheme of things – will be inconsequential. Bluntly, from what I know of government budgeting, I’m guessing that the entire annual operations costs of NARA – Pittsfield could be paid for with the amount of money that’s spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the next, say, 43 seconds or so.  That’s right, in less than a minute.

But it’s just the kind of action that people will look at, nod sagely and say, “Yes, that makes sense.  Good idea. Saving money and all that.  Had to be done.  They’re not supposed to think too hard about the actual numbers, because then the “good idea” starts to turn all misty and unicorn-like. Pretty soon, it disappears over the horizon.

There.  I said it.  I went “all political” on you. 

Here’s another analogy if the other one seemed a bit too partisan  The cost of Barack Obama’s 2008 swearing-in ceremony plus inaugural luncheon was budgeted for $1.2 million – which is probably enough to operate the NARA - Pittsfield operations for about five full years.   In the grand scheme of things, Federal budget-wise, $1.2 million ain’t much.

 Did you enjoy the food at the inaugural luncheon? Might you enjoy five more years of NARA-Pittsfield research even more? Well then, it may be time to get some 44 cent stamps, a few envelopes and some pieces of paper.

Are you feeling a bit put out and left out in the cold because the NARA folks in Washington have decided to close a public research facility this coming October –  a facility used mostly by genealogists and historical researchers – in what is being glibly described as a cost-saving measure – but there’s no actual dollar amount of “cost savings” mentioned anywhere?

Are you concerned that there’s a lot of misinformation that is being circulated about NARA-Pittsfield in the genealogical community by folks who should know better? 

Maybe you should tell folks in Washington exactly what you think about all this.

Here are some facts:

Fact 1a: Contrary to what seems to be popular opinion, NARA-Pittsfield is not a facility that ONLY has records that are easily available elsewhere and online.  It’s not simply rolls of census population schedules.  If that’s what David Ferriero has been told by his subordinates, he needs to do what any good genealogist would do – check his sources for accuracy. In fact, the facility has lots of microfilm with information that is (a.) not on the Internet and (b.) not likely to be digitized and online anytime soon.  I go to Pittsfield regularly to use microfilm I cannot get anywhere else close by. Example: If you’ve ever heard my “census” talk, you know why it can be important to consult the microfilm for Record Group M279, Records of the 1820 Census of Manufactures.  Even though it’s only 27 rolls of film, it’s not online.  But it’s available at NARA-Pittsfield. The illustrations for my slides came from that film.  By the way, “popular opinion” tends not to be a “reliable source”.

Factoid 1b:  Even if NARA-Pittsfield had only mostly the same microfilm that’s available in other close- by locations and online (which it doesn’t), that’s not the issue.  Should we trash the books on the non-circulating reference shelves of Public Library A – then proceed to close Library A – simply because Public Library B (a facility that’s more than a hundred miles away) has lots of the same books and because a lot of the info in the reference books is probably already on the internet somewhere? Especially if the only cost saving was likely to be the salaries of two employees? If Library A was in or near your community and if you consistently received exemplary service from those two employees, you’d say that was “crazy talk.”

Fact 2: As “gub’mint” programs go, NARA-Pittsfield likely generates more “free” volunteer hours, more in-depth educational programs and more NARA “good-will” than any of its other facilities, on a Federally-expensed dollar for dollar basis.  It’s called “bang for the buck.”  Look it up. 

Fact 3: NARA-Pittsfield volunteers (a super-active, dedicated “Friends” group) publish “Archival Anecdotes” and actually answer mail requests for information look-ups, using the NARA-Pittsfield microfilm. The cost of their research time is …(wait for it)…free!  Even though there’s a small charge for copies made from the microfilm, it’s a value-added service that’s still hard to beat.  And any revenue that’s generated by the Friends gets plowed right back into NARA – Pittsfield, thus reducing taxpayer costs for materials. You can learn more here (but hurry up, it will likely all be gone after October 1 the way things are now)

Fact 4: According to Ferriero’s statement, 2,520 researchers used the Pittsfield facility last fiscal year.  Some came from great distances, simply because NARA-Pittsfield is the closest facility to them. That kind of  walk-in traffic at NARA-Pittsfield might “light” by big city NARA- Washington standards, but it is not insubstantial by any means; it is likely much greater than the walk-in traffic at the average Congressperson’s field office - – and, as a federally paid-for facility  - probably costs less to operate.

So, maybe it’s time to write to your reps in Washington and tell them that you think that closing the NARA facility in Pittsfield in October 2011 is a really, really bad idea.

While you’re at it, maybe you should tell the Archivist of the United States as well.  You’ll find contact info at where there’s a “Contact Us” link.

I’m not going to tell you what to write because the letters that reach the folks in Congress should not be “canned” like so many politically-motivated petitions often are.  There’s no “form letter” to copy and mail. Just tell ‘em what you know and what you think about the closing.

If you’re a researcher, you already know the facts about NARA –Pittsfield and why it’s important that it remain open to serve the public as a top-notch research facility and also to provide educational opportunities to future generations of historians and public-minded citizens; chances are, however, that your representative hasn’t given much thought to any of this.

Frankly, it’s part of your job as a concerned researcher to try and correct that situation.

So, since by now you’re feeling that this is probably an important matter, and, since time is of the essence, you might have decided to email or call your elected representatives.  After all, your representatives all have phones, websites and they also have these convenient little forms on the website that you can use to send him or her a note.  No fuss, no bother.  Easy as pie!

STOP!  Hold on a minute! 

While you can do this write-and-click thingie online, bear in mind – absolutely nothing persuades like a real personal letter – hand-signed and perhaps even hand-written - from a constituent back in the home district. 

While calling or emailing is better than your taking no action at all, NOTHING gets more attention in a House or Senate office in Washington than a real letter. And the real power is in Washington, not in your representative’s district office.

Sure, it will take some extra time to get your stamped, enveloped missive delivered in Washington because of the security screening, but I can assure you that it will get noticed and read.

Remember – these are folks who expect that you will remember them kindly come Election Day in November.  If you actually bothered to actually write and send a personal letter, it conveys a simple, powerful message: I CARE WHAT YOU DO and I PAY ATTENTION and I VOTE!

Seriously, if you do nothing, you will regret it when October 1st rolls around.  Then, it will be too late.

Where should I write?

If you live in Vermont and regularly drive to NARA – Pittsfield AND you think that closing that research facility there is a bad idea that will result in very little (if any) cost savings and a whole lot of ill-will for the National Archives administration, consider sending a letter to both of your Senators expressing your views:

The Hon. Patrick J. Leahy
433 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

The Hon. Bernard Sanders
332 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

If you live in Connecticut, your guys in the Senate are:

The Hon. Joseph I. Lieberman
706 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

The Hon. Richard Blumenthal
G55 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

They certainly need to hear that NARA-Pittsfield is important to all researchers in the state of Connecticut, and for many, the closest and most convenient NARA facility.

Folks in Massachusetts should send a letter to their Senators below:

The Hon. John F. Kerry
218 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

The Hon. Scott F. Brown
317 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

Even though they’re likely familiar with the facility, it’s always good to remind them of what it means to you and your hundreds of voting friends.

New Yorkers need to contact their Senators as well:

The Hon. Charles E. Schumer
322 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

The Hon. Kirsten E. Gillibrand
478 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

They need to know that for upstaters, the NARA-Pittsfield facility is an absolute necessity.  (You can also remind Sen. Gillibrand that she can drive from her new home in Rensselaer County to the NARA-Pittsfield facility in less than 45 minutes on a beautiful back-country road….)

In addition to your Senators, don’t forget your members of Congress who serve in the House of Representatives. They have powerful voices, too.  Here’s the contact information you’ll need:

If you live in central or western Massachusetts, the Hon. John W. Olver is your guy.  He represents a district that encompasses six Massachusetts counties - Berkshire, Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin, Worcester and Middlesex.  His district includes eight of Massachusetts’ state college campuses, plus Williams, Amherst, Simon’s Rock, Smith, Mt. Holyoke, and Hampshire Colleges as well as UMass/Amherst.  This is the home district for NARA – Pittsfield. 

Here’s how you can contact Congressman Olver:

The Hon. John W. Olver
1111 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515

Directly north is Congressman Peter Welch, who represents the entire state of Vermont.  Vermonters should write to Congressman Welch at the address below:

The Hon Peter Welch
1404 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

To the south is the state of Connecticut.   Three of the five representatives there come from districts that are a short drive to NARA – Pittsfield.  Each represents many constituents who have used the Pittsfield facility and would want it to remain open. If you live in Connecticut’s 1st, 2nd or 5th District, the contact information for your representative is as follows:

The Hon. John B. Larson
1501 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

The Hon. Joseph Courtney
215 Cannon House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

The Hon. Christopher S. Murphy
412 Cannon House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

Finally, to the west is the State of New York, which has a large population of dedicated researchers who travel regularly over the mountains to the NARA – Pittsfield facility.  Your representatives should know how you feel about this planned closing.

Freshman Congressman Christopher Gibson, Ph.D., represents the New York 20th, which is the multi-county New York border district directly to the west of Massachusetts.  Due west of Congressman Gibson (but still in the greater Albany area) is the district represented by Paul D. Tonko.  South of Congressmen Tonko’s and Gibson’s districts is the district represented by Maurice Hinchey.  Each of these gentlemen represents many researcher-constituents that are with a one or (leisurely) two hour drive of NARA – Pittsfield.

Here’s the contact information for each of them:

The Hon. Christopher Gibson
502 Cannon House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

The Hon. Paul D. Tonko
422 Cannon House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515

The Hon. Maurice Hinchey
2431 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

Not Local?  You Can Still Help.

Don’t live anywhere near these parts?  Consider writing to your own Congressperson / Senators and ask them to get the word to some of their Congress friends mentioned above on your behalf.  Tell them that closing NARA – Pittsfield is not a good idea for the research community in general.  Make a noise.

While NARA-Pittsfield may not be personally important to you (i.e., it’s not your personal ox being gored this time...), remember that genealogists, historians and other researchers who do not speak out when public facilities like NARA-Pittsfield are slated for closure send a very clear message by their silence.

The message is, “Do whatever you want.  We don’t much care.”


  1. I think the commitment of the volunteers and the public service that Jean Nudd accomplishes with her outreach, including personal appearances and the radio show is worthy of note by the world at large. Our archives. Our access.

    p.s. thanks for all the contact info. Sorry to see that Eastman is not a supporter.

  2. Thanks for posting this on your blog as a public service to us all. Your message corrects misinformation about the closing and provides us with the necessary tools for taking action. Thank you so much. I thought it was too late to do anything to stop this closure but your blog has convinced me that there's still time. I am preparing letters today to send to Washington.