News & Politics

Inside the Effort to Revamp the DC Archives

A vital resource is getting a new home.

One of the historic documents held by the DC Archives. Photograph courtesy of Neil Flanagan, DC Archives Group.

For decades, many of the DC government’s most important documents have been kept in an old horse stable tucked away down an alley in Shaw. The records—stretching back to 1792—are of real historic significance, yet they’re stored in a space that’s too small to accommodate the ever-growing collection and is hard for both the public and researchers to navigate.

Now a longtime effort to create a proper home for the city’s records is finally paying off. Planning is in the early stages, but a new archive building­ will likely be constructed on the University of the District of Columbia’s Van Ness campus. It will be large enough to properly house all of the records—currently split between the Shaw building, rented National Archives space in Maryland, and other locations—and will allow for greater access to birth and death certificates, property-­tax records, and other routine documents, along with a bevy of historic items. An estimated 500,000 cubic feet of paper is in the archives’ possession, including the original wills of Frederick Douglass and Alexander Graham Bell.

The latest step in the process is the formation of the Archives Advisory Group, which was sworn in by the DC Council in November. Howard University librarian Lopez D. Matthews Jr. was recently named the city’s official archivist, filling a position that’s been open since 2020.

Chaired by former archivist of the United States Trudy Peterson, the advisory group hopes to help to fix problems that have been lingering for years. According to several members, the archives aren’t well cataloged and some of the documents are in questionable condition. The facilities are also significantly short-staffed. A typical state archive will have at least 20 employees, Peterson says. DC has six. (Secretary of the District Kim Bassett, who is responsible for overseeing the archives, denies major problems and says the collection is in “great shape.”)

The hope is that these records of Washington’s past can truly be appreciated. “People talk about how this is the nation’s capital, but DC has been constantly overlooked as a municipality, as a community,” says Neil Flanagan, an architect and writer who’s a member of the advisory group but wasn’t speaking on its behalf. “The DC Archives is the most comprehensive documentation of the lives of the people who lived in DC, and no one else is going to take care of it for us.”

This article appears in the May 2022 issue of Washingtonian.

Jane Recker
Assistant Editor

Jane is a Chicago transplant who now calls Cleveland Park her home. Before joining Washingtonian, she wrote for Smithsonian Magazine and the Chicago Sun-Times. She is a graduate of Northwestern University, where she studied journalism and opera.