On June 19, 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Public Law 73-432 establishing a “National Archives of the United States Government” . It was the culmination of “124 years of delay”  and decades of congressional debate on the issue of national records preservation .
Advocacy for a National Archives had been growing more forcefully since at least 1895, and Congress finally set aside money for a suitable building in 1926 . President Hoover laid the cornerstone in early 1933, but it was FDR who was more responsible for shaping the new agency. He influenced the scope of its holdings (thus facilitating the expansion of its record-keeping space during the mid-1930s), took a direct role in its early activities, and even “got involved in staff appointments, including suggesting that an African American be hired to deal with records pertaining to African Americans” .
The first task of the National Archives was to assemble all federal records in the nation’s capital. By mid-1940, it had acquired a quarter-million cubic feet of federal records from the U.S. Senate, White House, Department of State, Federal Works Agency, and other federal entities . Gathering records from around the country posed an even greater challenge and no one at the time knew the full extent of federal records that had accumulated in offices and storehouses across the nation.
Here, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) played an essential role in assisting the National Archives get off the ground, taking on the project of researching all federal archives outside of Washington, D.C. The work began in January 1936 and by the end of June, WPA workers had surveyed 2,000,000 linear feet of records located in 5,000 government buildings across the nation . The WPA’s work was so beneficial that it was renewed for the next fiscal year. Subsequently, the WPA’s Historical Records Survey continued the work by inventorying all that had been surveyed earlier.
By 1943, an astonishing 506 volumes had been assembled by the WPA under the title, The Inventory of Federal Archives in the States . Not only had scattered records been identified and inventoried, “In the course of this work many records of historical significance were discovered, many valuable documents were saved from destruction, and frequently records recovered from dust-laden storerooms were found to fill gaps in files that had long been considered hopelessly blank” .
Today, the National Archives has dozens of facilities spread out across the United States, including the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York, and holds billions of pages of textual records, tens of millions of photographs, millions of maps, charts, and drawings, and much more for the public to explore and research .
The first U.S. Archivist was Robert D.W. Connor (1878-1950), appointed by FDR in 1934. He served until 1941: “with some help from the President… Connor successfully took an agency that did not have a building [the building had not been completed at the time of his appointment], a staff, or a clear plan and turned it into the preeminent repository of historical records in the nation” .
The National Archives can be seen as a symbol of FDR’s commitment to history and learning, which he iterated at the dedication of his library. He said that a nation “must believe in the past. It must believe in the future. It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its own people so to learn from the past that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future” .
Other history-related policies and projects of the New Deal included WPA funding for archaeological digs and work in local archives; physical restoration of historic sites by New Deal relief and public works agencies; and the 1935 Historic Sites Act, the first declaration that historic preservation would be a national policy.
(1)“An Act of June 19, 1934 (“National Archives Act”), Public Law 73-432, 48 STAT 1122, to Create a National Archives of the United States Government, and for Other Purposes,” National Archives and Records Administration (accessed September 27, 2021). (2) “New Archives Building to House Old U.S. Papers,” The News Journal (Wilmington, Delaware), June 28, 1934, p. 7. (3) James Worsham, “Our Story: How the National Archives Evolved Over 75 Years of Change and Challenges,” Prologue Magazine, Vol. 41., No. 2, Summer 2009 (accessed September 27, 2021). (4) See “National Archives Building: Completion and Expansion – Washington, DC,” Living New Deal (accessed September 27, 2021). (5) See note 3. (6) Sixth Annual Report of the Archivist of the United States, For the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1940, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1941, p. 18. (7) Second Annual Report of the Archivist of the United States, For the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1936, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1936, p. 12. (8) Eighth Annual Report of the Archivist of the United States, For the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1942, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1943, p. 82. For an example of this inventory, see, “Inventory of Federal Archives in the States. Series V. The Department of Justice. Prepared by the Survey of Federal Archives, Division of Women’s and Professional Projects, Works Progress Administration. The National Archives, Cooperating Sponsor.” Hathitrust (accessed September 27, 2021. (9) See note 7. (10) See, “About the National Archives of the United States” and “Visit Us,” National Archives and Records Administration (accessed September 27, 2021). (11) “Our First Archivist, Robert D.W. Connor,” Pieces of History, A blog of the U.S. National Archives, June 1, 2016 (accessed September 27, 2021). (12) See note 3.« Back to Glossary Index