Blog Posts

« Back to blog post list

D.C. Archives Improvements Are A Work in Progress

Fritz Mulhauser | August 21, 2022 | Last modified: August 22, 2022

Plans are moving slowly for a new D.C. Archives facility, and so far without noticeable attention to concerns surfaced in Council hearings and budget reports earlier in the year, according to D.C. Open Government Coalition discussions with advocates, observations of meetings, and a recent report by a new Archives Advisory Group to the D.C. Council.

Planning for a new archives facility began in 2014, with a target opening date in 2020, but many challenges and delays followed. The District construction agency, Department of General Services (DGS), had earlier begun planning but suspended it, then awarded a contract this spring to the architecture and engineering firm Hartman-Cox for a series of steps stretching over 208 months into the future. Early work started in recent weeks, with options for further steps of drawing up building details and overseeing construction of the approved design.  

After years of uncertainty over a location for the new facility, to house collections now scattered across the city and to provide for staff and public access, a site is set on the Van Ness campus of the University of the District of Columbia.

The firm’s first report is due this month and hasn’t surfaced yet. And it may raise many questions if it is developed based on prior construction estimates. The advisory group stressed in its first report, posted in June, that the old numbers are now “seriously inadequate.”

DGS contract documents the public obtained by Freedom of Information Act request include the architects’ April 22 proposal for beginning work. The firm, that did studies in earlier rounds of preliminary planning, says clearly that the new effort will be based on “technical analysis and cost estimates” in a 2018 study.

But does that make sense? Details mentioned in the proposal include figures on the volume of materials to be stored and a construction price tag of $61.7 million. Both have likely soared. Project parameters estimated almost a half-decade ago surely need revision.

The Archives Advisory Group, a seven-person group set up by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, began work in November 2021 to advise the D.C. Council on the facility. (See notice of meetings on Twitter, @DCArchivesGroup. Attend virtually at By law it is to have access to all related documents, which the group reports has not happened.

The chair, Trudy Huskamp Peterson, an experienced public records expert, spent twenty-four years with the U.S. National Archives, including more than two years as Acting Archivist of the United States.

Mayoral advisor Beverly Perry told the Council this spring more funds will be requested in a future DGS capital budget, but effective planning likely needs more certainty and sooner.

The Hartman-Cox planning activity so far has not included public outreach. That seems at odds with the Council Committee on Housing and Executive Administration that oversees the archives (part of the Office of the Secretary of the District).

In hearings this spring, the committee heard public testimony about years of unexplained delays and hidden activity and concluded in the committee’s FY23 budget report that “there is room to improve the planning and development of a new DC Archives facility by including voices of the public” and directing the mayor to “provide public comment opportunities.” Advocates are hoping the architects will set a new standard of transparency as they complete their first report under the new contract.

Nor is it clear whether any steps have been taken to begin following the direction from the Council to move records of D.C. government into the digital age. The Committee on Human Services in its FY23 budget report directed the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability to “develop a budget and process to determine how to digitize records and include community partners to help identify the next steps in achieving this goal.”

The Open Government Coalition has testified that the present archives do not include any digital records–hard to understand, several decades into the digital age.

Government officials and the public expect that digital government information that has long-term value will remain intact and accessible as time progresses, and state [information officials] have a vested interest in ensuring that enterprise knowledge assets are managed appropriately.

Council of State Archivists

Thus, it was not surprising that the Committee on Government Operations this year directed that the Office of the Chief Technology Officer “ensure that the intake, preservation, and accessibility of digital archival materials are consistently considered and addressed in the design of the new [archives] facility.” The committee was emphatic in its FY23 budget report that “digital archival infrastructure and research activities will need a physical space designed to accommodate them and DGS’s architect needs to be aware of these requirements.”

The mayor’s office did appoint Dr. Lopez D. Matthews, Jr., earlier this year as Public Records Administrator and State Archivist, following experience at Howard University with digital archives. He began in April and filled a longstanding vacancy. No senior archives expertise had been available for years to lead the project.  

Dr. Matthews has told the Advisory Group in its public meetings that he is involved in the architects’ work, but the public has not been, according to the group’s report.  

On the government side of the table to direct the new architectural work, the new archivist is a welcome addition. But the staffing of the Office of Public Records Management (a unit in the Office of the Secretary of the District responsible for the archives) is “completely inadequate to the demands of preparing and moving to a new facility and operating it once it is open,” again according to the advisory group.

The usually quiet subject of government archives has just now reached national headlines. Efforts to secure records of former President Donald Trump (required by law to be deposited in the U.S. National Archives) led to a dramatic search and retrieval of boxes from his Florida home.

Further attention seems needed in D.C. as well, so that records of a great city are subject of just as much concern, and so that resources are adequate, and plans are sound for an archives facility whose design at last has restarted after years of delay.

As the New York City Council said in enacting improvements to the governing law there two decades ago:

The Council finds that the professional and unbiased preservation of the City’s historical records is necessary in order to capture the accurate recording of history. The professional archiving of and accessibility to these records are cornerstones of a free society. . . . [Municipal archives] preserve the City’s collective memory and make possible the transmission of our democratic cultural heritage from generation to generation.  Individually and collectively, these records are priceless, unique, and are among the richest of our City’s legacies.

New York City Council, Law 22 (2003)