I work part-time as an Archives Technician at the National Archives at Atlanta. During those days, half of my time is spent in the public area, meaning I am either in the research room assisting genealogists or in the textual research room observing and assisting researchers who are examining and using our original records. Working in the public areas is one of the most important tasks student workers do here, as it supports all the archivists by giving them more time to do the many projects they have going on, freeing them up from time-consuming work with the general public.
The other part of my time is split between several tasks. One, which has pretty much been on the back burner since December, is a holdings maintenance project, as everyone who works here is assigned at least one of these, so that downtime that might crop up can be used for maintenance, organization, description, and database creation for and about the many, many collections and materials we have here. Over time, we are entering information about the items in collections and folders into a finding aid, as well as creating a database that helps archivists and researchers alike to navigate each particular collection. There are so many records here at the National Archives that I know we could all do this for the rest of our lives and not complete the task.
I often walk in the bays—which is what you call the giant warehouse-style caverns that hold the endless shelves stacked with FRC boxes, Hollinger boxes, abnormal-sized boxes, cylinders, map cabinets, and marvel at the sheer amount of material they hold. There are four bays total at the Atlanta facility. I cannot even estimate any remotely meaningful number of cubic feet or number of boxes—let alone estimate a number of documents within those. Billions. Kajillions. I laughed at a recent series of online articles and commentaries that were addressing the recent Civil Case Screening Project that NARA has undertaken in the last year (I’ll explain soon), in which people objected to the National Archives deciding which records in the enormous backlog of civil cases would be kept, and which would be destroyed. People have been upset for a number of reasons, some founded, most unfounded or unrealistic. My favorite innocent comment came from a woman who perkily suggested these records all be digitized instead, since one of the arguments for destroying a portion of them was due to space constraints within NARA facilities. She proposed digitization as if that was the simpler, easier answer. Clearly this woman has neither spent much time digitizing anything (it is ENORMOUSLY time-consuming and painfully monotonous) nor, obviously, has she ever taken a peek at the cavernous bays I walk through every day I am at work. I think it would be a healthy dose of medicine for each patron, every American citizen who gets angry at the federal government for not being able to locate a record they are seeking by searching for someone’s name, to take a look inside the bays of the Archives for a glimpse at how many things we keep here. Records are not organized by a handy name reference, no. And they never will be if you understand anything about federal records. Nor, also, will they all be digitized. Not ever.