Seattle may lose its National Archives. That should concern more than local historians

The vast collection, along with our larger ecosystem of historical scholarship, helps make Seattle great. 

If the federal government sells the property home to the National Archive in Seattle's Sandpoint, the vast collection could be sent to Missouri and California, making it difficult for local researchers to access. (Valerie Niemeyer/Crosscut)

Historians may argue about what made Seattle great — the Klondike Gold Rush, the proximity to the Pacific Rim, Boeing. But one of the most compelling arguments for Seattle’s greatness is the emergence of the University of Washington as a major research university.

From Roger Sale to Margaret O’Mara, the presence of world-class professors at the UW has been central to our city’s success. O’Mara’s 2005 book, Cities of Knowledge, about tech cities, suggests that research universities are vital to tech success: There is no Silicon Valley without Stanford, no Silicon Forest without a school like UW. In his 1976 history, “Seattle Past to Present,” which has recently been reissued by the University of Washington Press (I wrote the new introduction), Sale lauds the civic mindedness and foresight of Seattle pioneer Arthur Denny for donating property on a downtown hill to establish the territorial college that eventually became the UW.  

Such institutions do not thrive in a vacuum. Seattle has arguably risen to regional importance because it is an exporter of intellectual capital, not just in tech, science, engineering and medicine, but in retail innovation, arts and culture more broadly. And if the UW plays a central role in attracting private and federal dollars, as well as brainpower, Seattle’s great strength also lies in institutions that orbit and serve the wider intellectual community. I’m talking about the regional importance of scholarship.

Many people believe that a city founded in 1851 can’t have much history to begin with. It’s true that we have lost many historic structures and fabric, as boom towns often do. But it’s also true that we have undergone something of a history renaissance in recent years, thanks in large part to institutions that support scholarship. The New Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the UW sheds light on Northwest and Pacific Rim natural and indigenous history and culture, as well as the process of conducting research behind glass; the Museum of History and Industry now has both a more public presence at South Lake Union, serving as a shrine to civic innovation and better storage and research facilities in SoDo. And, in Olympia, the Legislature recently approved funding for the Washington State Archives to be relocated and renovated in a new facility that will also house the state library; it will not simply protect our heritage, but preserve facts for a new century. Archives contain the raw data and primary sources that fuel research, understanding and, ultimately, insight.

So the news that the National Archives at Seattle is considering closing its vast facility in Sand Point should send a shudder not just through the community of historians — which it has — but through those who believe in Seattle’s regional exceptionalism. The government is eyeing cashing in on the property the archives sit on, but also in apparently zeroing the facility out of its budget. The archives here are a repository of records that make up our historical record, dating back to the mid-19th century. And they do this for the entire Cascadia region — Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Idaho — plus Hawaii. A federal agency recently recommended that the archives center — a warehouse complex with less street appeal than a Costco — be shut down and that the U.S. government sell the property to the highest bidder. There is apparently no provision for public use, as was the case with federal property like Fort Lawton (now Discovery Park) or Sand Point Naval Air Station (now Magnuson Park).

The archives quietly and without fanfare are a critical part of the Northwest historical ecosystem, giving the public direct access to government documents, from genealogical records to court files. If you have read a Seattle or Northwest history book in the past half century, you are undoubtedly consuming information  retrieved from documents there, directly or indirectly. And many of these researchers are independent scholars — teachers, writers, activists. They don’t have research or travel budgets. If the records, as proposed, are divided and moved to California and Missouri, they will be out of reach for many. Digitization lags way, way behind.

In 2015, I began working on a series of stories about Nazis in the Northwest pre-Pearl Harbor. A well-known Seattle outdoorsman and attorney, Hans Otto Giese, worked for the local German consulate and was a Nazi sympathizer until the war. He continued to be a prominent presence in the community after World War II, his pro-Nazi past forgotten. During the war, the federal government tried to strip him of his citizenship.  A naturalized citizen, he won his case, kept his citizenship and claimed that the decision exonerated him.

I went to Sand Point to see if I could find the court records and — voila — I found lists of evidence, witnesses, his FBI interview and other documents that filled in the picture. Not the least of which was the decision in the case that allowed him to keep his citizenship, which from a legal standpoint was probably the correct one. But the judge’s conclusion revealed an unsettling sliver of Seattle history: “Under the clear preponderance of the evidence[,] he was closely associated with the small spearhead of Hitler and Nazi admirers in Seattle[,] which was very active in attempting to control some important German organizations in Seattle on behalf of Hitler.” The trial record clearly showed extensive evidence the man in question was a Nazi sympathizer and organizer throughout the 1930s and early ’40s, contrary to public and private memory.

The materials at the archive are carefully tended. You must register to use materials on site in a special room where requested boxes are brought to you. One of the key features of a terrific archive or special collection is, of course, access, preservation and protection of the unique materials. Another is the human resources — the longtime archivists and librarians who can help researchers navigate the sometimes difficult-to-understand filing systems, who learn the collections and can make suggestions about where to find obscure material. I have had plenty of experience with folks leading me to historical riches because they remembered a work-around to a glitch in the computer system, or that an obscure file might hold the answer to my question. Sometimes, they even reach out to the public to advertise materials. The city of Seattle, for example, recently teamed up with HistoryLink to produce the fascinating book, Seattle at 150: Stories of the City Through 150 Objects in the Seattle Municipal Archives, that showcases some of the archives’ holdings. How many archive employees in Missouri or California will be deeply familiar with records from Washington, Alaska, Oregon, Seattle or Boise?

Historian Feliks Banel has been following the archives story, now brewing into a controversy. He is editor of Columbia, the Washington State Historical Society’s quarterly magazine and reports on local history for KIRO radio. He has written that while historians have been blindsided by this potential closure and sale development, local politicians received some notice, but failed to notify the public or assume any leadership on the matter. Forgive me for being an old-timer, but I cannot imagine Sens. Warren G. Magnuson or Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson sitting idly by while such a threat loomed. A crucial piece of our federal infrastructure is under attack.

It seems to me that there must be a solution other than acquiescing to the elimination of the institution. If the property at Sand Point is too valuable to preserve our collective memory, perhaps it can be sold to developers and the profits used to build a bigger, better and more-accessible state-of-the-art federal archive in the region — perhaps near light rail?

We shouldn’t have to choose a future in which we risk losing an institution that supports Seattle’s unique regional role as a knowledge center.

About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.