Historic documents and hard drives missing from the National Archives

Many historic documents and objects the National Archives once possessed are missing. There’s a list of missing items on the National Archives website, and this AP article by Larry Margasak describes some of the items and includes comments from the Archives’ inspector general. Here’s an excerpt:

National Archives visitors know they’ll find the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights in the main building’s magnificent rotunda in Washington. But they won’t find the patent file for the Wright Brothers’ Flying Machine or the maps for the first atomic bomb missions anywhere in the Archives inventory.

Many historical items the Archives once possessed are missing, including:

–Civil War telegrams from Abraham Lincoln…

–Presidential portraits of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

–NASA photographs from space and on the moon.

–Presidential pardons.

Some were stolen by researchers or Archives employees. Others simply disappeared without a trace.

And there’s more gone from the nation’s record keeper.

The Archives’ inspector general, Paul Brachfeld, is conducting a criminal investigation into a missing external hard drive with copies of sensitive records from the Clinton administration… Because the equipment also may include classified information, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, calls it a a major national security breach.

Brachfeld has documented thousands of electronic storage devices, including computers and servers, that have gone missing over the past decade from the National Archives and Records Administration.

Grassley, who has demanded an accounting of all missing items, said the loss of historical documents “robs our nation of its history and is completely unacceptable.”

…Some records have been missing for decades from the Archives’ 44 facilities in 20 states and the capital, including 13 presidential libraries.

“When I came here nine years ago, there was no acknowledgment that we had a problem,” Brachfeld said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Since then, he has started a recovery team that attends trade shows and Civil War re-enactments, and enlists the help of dealers and researchers to recover historical items that belong to the government.

The agency has two missions that sometimes are in conflict: preserving documents and making them available to the public in monitored research rooms with surveillance cameras.

“We do not have item-by-item control,” said Archives spokeswoman Susan Cooper. “We can’t. We have 9 billion documents. We don’t know exactly what’s in each of those boxes. There’s no point in preserving materials that cannot be used.”

Not mentioned in the AP article but included in the National Archives list of missing items are valuable objects given to presidents, including five swords and daggers (some decorated in gold and jewels) given to Harry S. Truman and a silver proof Remington bronco statue given to George H. W. Bush.

The National Archives is offering a reward of up to $50,000 for information leading to the recovery of the missing Clinton administration hard drive, though apparently there are no rewards for the return of the historic documents or artifacts.

Losses and thefts are disturbingly common at institutions, archives, museums, and libraries throughout the world but are rarely disclosed. If more institutions were willing to publicize their missing items, it would increase the chances that some could eventually be recovered.


2 responses to “Historic documents and hard drives missing from the National Archives

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  2. Check out MissingMaterials.org, a project launched by OCLC for archives, libraries, booksellers, etc. to report their missing items using lists created in WorldCat.