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April 2005: 20 Years of the National Archives and Records Administration

Ronald Reagan's signature appears on the last page of the National Archives and Records Administration Act. (RG 11)

April 1, 2005, marks the 20th anniversary of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) as an independent Government agency.

Although the National Archives had been created as an independent agency in 1934, it was transferred to the newly created General Services Administration (GSA) in 1949, during a post - World War II effort aimed at increasing government efficiency. The National Archives became the National Archives and Records Service.

It soon became evident that the basic missions of the Archives and GSA were not compatible. While GSA's main focus was on the administration of government buildings and supplies, the Archives' responsibilities center on managing, preserving, and providing access to records of all branches of the U.S. Government. Without this independence, our country and our citizens did not have an archival program that was able to operate professionally and in the national interest.

Researchers, archivists, genealogists, educators, and other supporters of the National Archives came together to lobby Congress for an independent agency once more. They met success in 1984, when President Ronald Reagan signed the National Archives and Records Administration Act on October 19.

Staff on steps of National Archives Building
On April 1, 1985, staff in Washington, DC, marked independence by gathering for a group photograph on the steps of the National Archives Building.
(Photo by Hugh Talman)

The effective date for that act was April 1, 1985 - the date that NARA now marks as its independence day.

During the past two decades of independence, NARA has expanded its role as the nation's recordkeeper and raised its public profile as democracy's beacon.

Every year, NARA's work grows. Every year, NARA becomes the repository of more and more Government records to manage and preserve. And every year, a larger portion of those records are electronic records, the products of an increasingly digital Government.

To meet the challenges posed by these digital records, NARA is designing and building the Electronic Records Archives, which will preserve and provide continuing access to any type of electronic record created anywhere in the Federal Government. Without ERA, many of those records would be lost forever.

Free at Last button

Twenty years ago, this button commemorated the reestablishment of the National Archives as an independent agency.

NARA has also vastly improved its customer services over these years of independence. America's veterans now enjoy efficient and speedy service from NARA's St. Louis repository of military files of 34 million soldiers, sailors, and airmen of the 20th century. Genealogists and individuals researching family histories now have easier access to records such as census rolls and immigration data as well as improved finding aids and staff expertise.

Over these past two decades, NARA has also added capacity to preserve records—a state-of-the-art records facility in College Park, MD, seven more regional records service facilities (in Pittsfield, MA, Anchorage, AK, Lenexa, KS, Lee's Summit, MO, Kingsridge, OH, Perris, CA, and Ellenwood, GA), and four more Presidential libraries (Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton). And the historic National Archives Building in Washington, home to the nation's founding documents, has undergone its first-ever top-to-bottom renovation.

The renovation also created much more space for public outreach. This allowed the creation of the National Archives Experience, a set of seven interconnected exhibit, theater, educational, and online environments that provide a variety of ways of exploring America's records and the stories they contain. Much of the National Archives Experience, which began opening in stages in 2003, is made possible through NARA's partnership with the Foundation for the National Archives.

Readers of this calendar will know that in 2004 NARA opened three major parts of the National Archives Experience: the Public Vaults, the William G. McGowan Theater, and the Lawrence O'Brien Gallery. At the end of this year we look forward to opening the Learning Center, where students, teachers, and anyone with an interested in education can learn more about NARA's resources.

As we mark 20 years of independence this month, we look forward to bringing you informative and entertaining programs in the years to come.

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