Possibility of closing archives worries New York Thousands of records filed at U.S. branch office are trove for researchers

August 13, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - When John Carlin, director of the National Archives, alludes to the fate of the New York branch, he uses words like consolidation and space planning.

But historians, genealogists and other researchers are worried that he plans to shut the New York archives and move its billions JTC of records out of state. The most likely spot, they worry, is Kansas City, Mo., where tax and other federal records from a Bayonne, N.J., archive that closed recently are now being sent.

The New York archives contain some 67,000 cartons filled with documents, from court filings on the Titanic, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Alger Hiss to lists of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island and records of naturalized citizens.

A treasure trove for local researchers, the archives also contain such eclectic documents as copies of federal theater projects from the Depression and a signed copy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

Concern about the possible loss of the archives is shared by Gov. George Pataki and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a New York Democrat, each of whom wrote to Carlin recently and expressed strong opposition to any plans to close the local operation.

"Rumors have been abounding for two years that they're planning to move archives from around the country," said Estelle Guzik, president of the Jewish Genealogical Society, referring to the 13 regional branches. "High on the list is the rumor that New York is one of them."

But Susan Cooper, a spokeswoman for the National Archives, said there was no plan to close the New York archives or move any of its records. "It's an urban myth," she said of the rumors.

A public meeting with Carlin to discuss the fate of the New York archives is scheduled for Thursday at 7 p.m. at the archives building, on the corner of Varick and Houston Streets.

"It is an incredibly rich historical collection," said Betty Liu Hebron, a spokeswoman for the Museum of the Chinese in the Americas. Stored in the archives, for instance, are 581 boxes of documents relating to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, including typed interviews with Chinese workers.

But the rich trove of records is rapidly outgrowing its storage spaces in New York and around the country, Cooper said. "Our biggest need is space," she said.

There are general plans to consolidate archives throughout the country, she said, adding that the rent for the New York archives is the most expensive in the country. "We're looking at that," she said.

But Kenneth Jackson, chairman of the history department at Columbia University, said it was crucial that the archives remain in New York, despite the high rent. The archives are accessible to large numbers of people and close to academic centers near the downtown Manhattan site, he said.

"They are in the heart of one of the greatest research centers in the world," added Stephen Novak, president of the Archivists Round Table, a professional group. "Historians, genealogists, anthropologists, scholars of all fields come here to do research. In New York, they complement other research groups, and that is what makes them special."

Jackson said that talk of moving raised concerns that archives officials "don't know what they're doing."

That, in fact, has been a concern among many professional researchers since Carlin, a former governor of Kansas and a Clinton campaign supporter, was appointed the National Archivist in 1995. His appointment was vehemently opposed by historians and archivists.

"There's a lot of discontent with Carlin because he's not an archivist," Novak said. "There's a vast amount of distrust among archives users and members of professional groups about the agency now."

Pub Date: 8/13/98

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