National Archives

National Archives, official depository for records of the U.S. federal government, established in 1934 by an act of Congress. Although displeasure concerning the method of keeping national records was voiced in Congress as early as 1810, the United States continued to entrust the records to the various agencies that had accumulated them. That practice resulted in much loss, confusion, deterioration, and destruction of documents. It was not until 1926 that Congress provided for the construction of a national archives building where federal government records could be stored, assembled, and preserved. The congressional act of 1934 organized the National Archives Establishment, to be administered by the archivist of the United States. The archivist was charged with accepting and preserving the records of the three branches of the federal government. The National Archives was incorporated into the General Services Administration in 1949, but in 1985 it was made an independent agency, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

Located in Washington, D.C., the building to house these records was completed in 1935. Some of the country's most important documents, including the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights are housed in the National Archives Building, and a version of the English Magna Carta dating to 1297 is also on display. The overflow accumulation of millions of documents and other materials necessitated the creation of a second archives facility in College Park, Md., which was occupied in 1994, and NARA is now headquartered there. Nine regional records facilities are spread throughout the country, and the agency also manages the presidential records of all presidents since Herbert Hoover (by law since 1981). NARA is reponsible as well for publishing acts of Congress; presidential proclamations, executive orders, and federal regulations (in the Federal Register); and The United States Government Manual, among others. Since the early 1990s, the agency has offered some of its materials and services on line. The National Archives has proved invaluable in facilitating the research of scholars, particularly in the field of American history.

See M. MacCloskey, Our National Attic (1968); H. G. Jones, The Records of a Nation (1969).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2023, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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