Archives' move upsets historians

The sign on the exterior of the National Archives office of Philadelphia, located in the Robert Nix Federal Building. (C.F. Sanchez / Staff Photographer)
The sign on the exterior of the National Archives office of Philadelphia, located in the Robert Nix Federal Building. (C.F. Sanchez / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 16, 2014

INSIDE A GRAND old building in Center City, history buffs and scholars can examine centuries-old documents signed by George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Re-enactors of long-ago wars can research details of past eras. Citizens can trace ancestors and their activities back generations.

But soon, anyone aiming to do such things will have to trek nearly 20 miles north to a secluded business park at the city's edge.

U.S. Archivist David S. Ferriero announced in March that the National Archives at Philadelphia's facility in the Robert N.C. Nix, Sr. Federal Building, on Chestnut Street near 9th, would be among three nationally to close to cut costs.

The collection will move to a warehouse on Townsend Road in the Far Northeast, where the National Archives already had been storing records. Although the Center City location was supposed to remain open until July 31, it's mostly already closed, a sign on its door directing anyone wanting to see more than a public exhibit or participate in previously scheduled workshops to Townsend Road.

That irks historians, researchers, students and others who say the Far Northeast site is so remote that it's inaccessible. Buses run there only before 9 a.m. and after 3 p.m. Otherwise, carless visitors face a 20-minute walk or cab fare from the closest bus or train stop.

The closure mystifies some critics, considering the archives spent $1.2 million in 2008 and 2009 to renovate the Center City facility, said Jim Cassano, chairman of the Independence Hall Association.

"They made this decision in Washington, D.C., without talking to anybody" in Philadelphia, said Cassano, who wrote a petition on urging Ferriero to reconsider the closure.

Charles Croce, executive director and CEO of the Philadelphia History Museum, also wrote to Ferriero to voice the "collective dismay" of 36 cultural and historical institutions protesting the closure.

"The inaccessibility of the Federal Records Center by public transportation will severely limit these activities and have a negative impact on the education of Philadelphia's youth," Croce wrote.

That's something Thomas Davidson fears. Davidson, principal of the history-focused Constitution High School, on 7th Street near Market, said many students study and intern at the archives.

"Having the National Archives and their staff right around the corner to help our students and staff with their research has been a great benefit to our program," Davidson said.

Raymond Yuan, the school's valedictorian and an archives intern, agreed: "People can easily get into Center City. They can't easily get to Townsend Road."

But a National Archives and Records Administration spokeswoman said cost concerns and dwindling attendance drove the decision to consolidate.

Of 17 archival facilities in 12 states and Washington, D.C., the Center City site "was NARA's second smallest facility, and second most expensive to operate," according to NARA.

Yet its attendance plummeted from a recent high of nearly 14,000 public visitors in Fiscal Year 2006 to 2,100 in FY 2013, according to NARA. On-site visits by researchers also fell, from a high of 8,600 in FY 2009 to 1,900 in FY 2013. Visits dropped because archives staff moved many records online and did more outreach and school visits, a spokeswoman said.

Merging Philly's two sites - at a cost of $225,000 - will save more than $560,000 a year, according to NARA estimates.

On Twitter: @DanaDiFilippo


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