Living “the future of our past”: Celebrating the 30th Anniversary of Archives II

This post was created in collaboration with Phillip Wong, Archives Technician in the Still Picture Branch.

On October 17, 1989, the ground shook as a 6.9 magnitude earthquake hit San Francisco, interrupting game 3 of the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics. Across the country, the ground was also shifting. Politicians and Archives staff were breaking ground on Archives II, the new DC-area National Archives building that would ease the storage issues that had been troubling the National Archives Building in Washington, DC for decades. Five years later, in May 1994, the National Archives at College Park opened, providing the public with far more resources and opportunities to explore our nation’s history.

Archives II under construction (Local ID: 64-CA-2-21-1)
Researchers in the Archives I Central Research Room (Local ID: 64-NA-5694C-20; NAID: 35810784)

Still Picture Branch Archivist Nick Natanson remembers the challenges of Archives I, the location in downtown Washington, DC, when he joined NARA in 1989. He described the office space as “makeshift” and recounted how researchers were “knocking elbows” trying to set up camera stands and view records in a Still Picture research room that was a fraction of the current space. These issues were particularly highlighted in the years just before Archives II opened. 1991 marked the 50th anniversary of U.S. involvement in World War II, causing the research rooms to be even more crowded and forcing staff in the Still Picture room to implement an appointments system.

Nick noted the “incredibly detailed, incredibly laborious” planning process to figure out how all of the new space would be used. A new series titled, “Photographs of Equipment and Records Organization” (Local Identifier 64-AMC), shows the work that went into documenting all of the equipment and records that would have to be moved to the new location. According to one record in 64-AMC, among the holdings scheduled for relocation were 1,969,784 architectural and engineering plans and 8,932,275 aerial photos!

Cropped page of a record from 64-AMC (Local ID: 64-AMC-27-6)

However, when I talked to Nick about the move, he mostly spoke about how important Archives II has been in allowing NARA to accept so many new records and properly store them, especially when it comes to new preservation standards.

Still Picture Branch archivist Nick Natanson guides a cart of wooden boxes filled with glass plate negatives, along with albums of vintage prints from the Norfolk Navy Yard towards the Still Picture Processing Office.
(Local ID: 64-CFDA-20151106-02-021; NAID: 301697279)

Nick says that after years of working at Archives II, he wonders, “How did we ever survive in the old building?” He fondly remembers looking through rows of empty shelves in the new Still Picture stack and seeing decades of possibilities.

Two of the major accessions to Still Pictures have been 255-KSC: Kennedy Space Center Central Photographic Files, 1958–December 1995 and 95-GP: Photographs Relating to National Forests, Resource Management Practices, Personnel, and Cultural and Economic History, ca. 1897–ca. 1980. Another significant analog accession for the Still Picture Branch over the last 30 years was 330-CF: Combined Military Service Photographic Files, 1982–2007.

Last month, a new Digitization Lab opened at Archives II, and with it comes new opportunities for the building to provide the public with unprecedented access to our collections. With the goal of digitizing 500 million pages by September 30, 2026, the evolution of Archives II truly encapsulates the sentiments of Acting Archivist of the United States Dr. Trudy Huskamp Peterson at the facility’s dedication ceremony: “Welcome to the future of our past!”

Local ID: 64-CA-7-119-39

Some of the items and series referenced in this article are not yet available in the catalog. Links will be added as they become available. If you would like to know more about Still Picture holdings, please contact us at Records from all NARA custodial units that have recently been uploaded to the catalog can be viewed here:

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