Our National Archives At Risk: What The Government Accountability Office Has Found

We wanted to share important (and frankly, frightening) news with you regarding the findings released last week of an audit of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

The audit (42p. PDF) was prompted in part by the loss of the Wright Brothers’ original patent and maps for atomic bomb missions in Japan.

These losses led investigators to discover that some of the nation’s prized historical documents are in danger of being lost for good. It follows a previous audit (66p. PDF) earlier in October highlighting oversight and management improvements, but pointing out that more action was needed.

The Government Accountability Office has also released a Summary Of Audit Findings as well as a Highlights page. The NARA website has posted a Statement in response to the audit findings from Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero.

Nearly 80 percent of U.S. government agencies are at risk of illegally destroying public records and the National Archives is backlogged with hefty volumes of records needing preservation care, the audit by the Government Accountability Office found.

The report by the watchdog arm of Congress, completed this month after a year’s work, also found many U.S. agencies do not follow proper procedures for disposing of public records.

The report comes more than a year after news reports of key items missing at the nation’s record-keeping agency. Some of the items have been missing for decades but their absence only became widely known in recent years.

The patent file for the Wright Brothers flying machine was last seen in 1980 after passing around multiple Archives offices, the Patents and Trademarks Office and the National Air and Space Museum.

As for maps for the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, military representatives checked them out in 1962, and they’ve been missing ever since.

The GAO report did not specifically mention those or other examples of missing items including Civil War telegrams from Abraham Lincoln, Eli Whitney’s cotton gin patent and some NASA photographs on the moon.

Meanwhile, some documents face the threat of deterioration even though they’re already at the Archives. Figures from 2009 show 65 percent of its holdings need preservation steps. In some cases, a document’s condition already is so poor, it can’t be read – a backlog amounting to more than 2 million cubic feet of records.

The National Archives and Records Administration has 44 facilities in 20 states, including 13 presidential libraries, funded by about $470 million this year from Congress.

NARA also maintains a “Help The National Archives Recover Lost And Stolen Documents” website.