Archivist’s Column: Government Shutdown—35 Days in the Life of the National Archives

April 15, 2019

By David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States

The partial government shutdown from December 21, 2018, through January 25, 2019, affected every employee throughout the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). For 35 days, much of our normal operations were on hold as reference requests went unanswered, digitization projects halted, records processing stopped, public programs were canceled, and exhibits were delayed.

Some parts of the agency were able to carry on during that time. Staff in the Federal Records Centers Program (FRCP) were designated “exempt” because the FRCP is funded separately from the regular annual appropriations. That meant that we were able to continue to fulfill most requests for veterans’ service records and provide uninterrupted service to federal agencies that were still open.

A small number of staff in several other NARA offices worked without pay during the shutdown to ensure the continuation of essential operations. These included facility and security staff in each building and staff in the Office of the Federal Register, payroll services, and the general counsel’s office as well as a number of senior leaders.

Some effects of the partial shutdown were publicly visible, like the closed doors of our research rooms and museums. Less publicly visible effects included the interruption to accessioning and processing records and delayed building maintenance.

While research rooms at all National Archives locations and Presidential Libraries were closed, thousands of reference requests went unanswered and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests accumulated. Researchers who had planned their travel far in advance had to delay their research or find other sources of information.

Records accessioning and processing was suspended in archival units and at Presidential Libraries, and the annual move of permanent records to NARA, usually about 75,000 cubic feet, was delayed.

When a leak was discovered at the National Archives at Boston, research and facilities staff were called in to clean up, protect the wet records, and assess damage. Thanks to their quick action, damage was confined to a very small portion of the records, and our preservation staff is tending to those.

Our various digitization projects were suspended. One project to digitize more than 70 million World War II draft registration cards at the National Archives at St. Louis (with as a partner) lost 17 workdays of scanning, delaying the project by more than a million images.

While our website and online catalog remained available to the public, we could make no updates. Our social media accounts, usually places of vibrant engagement, were quiet and static.

Public events and educational programming in Washington, D.C., field locations, and Presidential libraries were canceled. The National Archives at New York alone had to cancel 36 programs that would have reached 1,100 people. Exhibits schedules were disrupted as openings and closings were delayed, and film screenings, lectures, the National Archives Sleepover, and a naturalization ceremony were canceled.

During a comparable period, the staff of the National Declassification Center normally would review and index hundreds of thousands of pages. The Office of Government Information Services, which provides policy guidance and mediation services for FOIA activities, would have closed about 260 inquiries in a comparable period.

All of these examples remind us of the valuable work we do every day to safeguard the records that tell the stories of our nation’s history.

The days following our return to duty were a time for refocusing, both in terms of staff needs and our work. We have been reassessing our projects and will continue to realistically pursue our goals.

Our staff were eager to return to work, and this sentiment was expressed over and over during the shutdown on a personal Facebook group created by staff as a place for NARA employees to share information, support each other, and just keep in touch while on furlough. The group grew from 77 members to more than 500 by the end of January and became an important place for maintaining person-to-person connections across the country.

Throughout the agency, people are making an effort to get back to normal and continue to protect and ensure access to the nation’s documentary heritage. I’m proud of their dedication to our mission, and we all look forward to continuing to serve the nation by protecting and sharing its history.