On June 19, 1911, Representative Morris Sheppard introduced H.R. 11850, a bill that authorized funds to design and estimate costs for a building to house the nation’s archives. Representative Sheppard requested Chief of the Library of Congress Manuscripts Division Gaillard Hunt’s input on the legislation because of his expertise with rare and historic documents. Hunt responded to Representative Sheppard with suggestions and voiced his support of the legislation. “That an archive building is a necessity is a fact familiar to all who have experience with government records,” Hunt asserted.
Despite the ballooning size of the government, in 1911 the United States did not have adequate or centrally located storage for records of federal agencies. Many documents were stored haphazardly and in danger of being destroyed through neglect, flood, and fire. In addition, the records were largely inaccessible to researchers seeking to use them for study, a complaint Hunt makes in his letter and emphasized with an enclosed opinion piece clipped from the New York Evening Post.
Regardless of these grave concerns, and ample evidence of their truth in the form of several fires that destroyed irreplaceable papers, the completion of a national archives building was decades in the making. Congress provided money for the purchase of a location for a building in 1904, but did not simultaneously fund its construction. The House also repeatedly refused to pay for new federal buildings in the capital city until other federal buildings in congressional districts around the country were funded.
Sheppard’s bill was referred to the Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds, where it died, and Hunt’s advice went unheeded by Congress for more than two decades. Congress finally appropriated money for construction in the Public Buildings Act of 1926. The National Archives became a federal agency in 1934, and its first building, completed in 1937, is located in downtown Washington, DC.