What’s in the National Archives?

Monday’s New York Times reported that former Sunbeam CEO Albert Dunlap fudged his autobiography and résumé by omitting allegations of corporate fraud he faced in the 1970s. The story cited court records obtained from the National Archives as proof. Why were the court records at the National Archives?

The National Archives and Records Administration stores documents from all three branches of the federal government. It disposes of court documents only with a court’s permission. Such permission is rarely granted. The National Archives’ regional records services facility in New York City, which stores the Dunlap case records, doesn’t believe any court records under its supervision have been thrown out. The New York facility covers holdings from federal agencies and courts in New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Its records date back to 1685.

NARA operates the National Archives at College Park, Md., 19 regional records facilities, 10 presidential libraries, and two presidential materials projects. (Explainer tackled the subject of presidential libraries in January.) It also encompasses the Office of the Federal Register, which publishes the federal government’s legal and rule-making publications, and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, which dishes out federal dollars to state and local governments and associations for the care of historical records.

The National Archives and Records Administration was established in 1934. Its most public face is the National Archives Building on Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C., which exhibits the “Charters of Freedom”: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. (The exhibit hall is closed for renovation until September 2003.)

Less than 3 percent of federal government records are deemed significant enough to be “permanently valuable.” But that’s still a lot of records: 21.5 million cubic feet of “original textual materials” (more than 4 billion pieces of paper from all three branches of government), nearly 14 million pictures and posters, more than 5 million maps, charts, and architectural drawings, nearly 300,000 reels of film, more than 200,000 sound and video recordings, and about 7,600 computer data sets.

Explainer thanks John Celardo of the National Archives and the National Archives and Records Administration home page.