WARNING: This article contains personal opinions.
David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, has proposed closing the National Archives at Boston-Pittsfield Annex, located in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. This facility is used to store Federal records that usually are not of interest to genealogists, such as the records of the use of asbestos in Federal buildings. However, the same facility does have an Annex, or "front room," that is equipped with computers, microfilm, and microfilm readers that serve the general public. The microfilms are all of frequently-used Federal records that are stored elsewhere, such as census records, immigration records, and the like. Many genealogists in western Massachusetts and several nearby states use this facility as it is the closest library with such records. The proposal is to close this Annex, sometimes called the Microfilm Reading Room. The remainder of the Pittsfield facility will remain in operation.
Normally, I would be against any proposal that reduces services available to genealogists. In this case, however, I might agree that closing the Pittsfield facility is a good idea.
First, I will point out that I live about a two-hour drive from the Pittsfield, Massachusetts, location. I am fortunate enough to have another, larger National Archives Regional Library closer to me in Waltham, Massachusetts. Therefore, I have had no need to visit the Pittsfield location. The same is true for other genealogists in eastern and central Massachusetts and nearby states: we have long had the luxury of access to TWO National Archives libraries within a reasonable driving distance.
Next, I well remember when the Pittsfield location was first proposed in 1989 or 1990. It was an unneeded and unwanted facility at the time, proposed by U.S. Representative Silvio O. Conte. A native of Pittsfield, Conte was well-known for "taking care of his district," which covered most of Western Massachusetts. In other words, he was one of the more active legislators known for obtaining "pork barrel" projects for his home district.
The original proposal written by Conte was to close the National Archives Regional Library in Waltham, Massachusetts, which received a lot of use in a highly urbanized location, and to replace it with a new facility in rural Pittsfield, Massachusetts, a location with no access by public transportation and with fewer nearby residents. The proposal made no sense at all to anyone, except to Representative Conte and a few Pittsfield-area residents who would benefit financially from the new building and the few jobs it would create. Admittedly, those would not be NEW jobs but simply replacement positions for those who would be transferred or laid off from their old jobs in Waltham.
In 1990, six years before I started this newsletter, I helped organize a letter writing campaign to stop the planned construction of the new National Archives building. We were supported by the then-Archivist of the United States, who privately stated that the proposed building was unneeded and unwanted and, if funded, the Archivist didn't know what it would be used for.
However, in early 1991, our campaign to stop the pork barrel legislation failed when Representative Silvio Conte died of cancer. His friends in Congress immediately pushed the pending legislation through committees and onto the floor, where it was voted in by an overwhelming margin. The legislators obviously felt it was to be a memorial to their recently-deceased comrade.
The final legislation had one change, however. It required keeping the original National Archives Regional Library in Waltham open and then establishing an additional, DUPLICATE facility about 130 miles away in Pittsfield. This duplication obviously has since been funded by taxpayers all over the U.S.
The new Federal Building was built at a cost to taxpayers of several million dollars and was soon named the "Silvio O. Conte Federal Building." It remains today as a memorial to his ability to "take care of his district." It is but one of many questionable Federally-funded projects in western Massachusetts sponsored by Representative Conte. Soon, the National Archives and Records Administration did use the building for storage of records relating to asbestos in Federal buildings, records that had previously been stored in an over-crowded library elsewhere. Over the years, other records have also been stored at the Boston-Pittsfield Annex but never any records of any particular importance to genealogists. To be sure, the building has been of use for several worthwhile projects, but those projects have little genealogy value.
The only "records" of genealogy interest being stored at the Pittsfield facility today are those computerized images and microfilm copies of records available elsewhere: census records, passenger lists, and similar high-demand records. In fact, all the census records have since also become available online, something undreamed of when the building was opened in 1991. Passenger lists and other, similar records are also being placed online although it will be another ten years or more before everything is available to genealogists at home.
Today we see less and less need of this building by genealogists as the records available at Pittsfield are now being duplicated online. Yes, closing the building certainly will inconvenience the genealogists of western Massachusetts and nearby states that are used to visiting this facility. However, one has to question the wisdom of spending millions of dollars each year to keep this rural facility open, providing access to records that are already available elsewhere.
It is interesting to note that the Archivist of the United States, David S. Ferriero, is a native of Massachusetts although his home town is at the extreme opposite end of the state from Pittsfield, in Beverly, Massachusetts. He graduated with a Bachelor's Degree from Northeastern University (in Massachusetts) and with a Master's Degree from Simmons College (in Massachusetts) and spent 31 years working at the MIT Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He undoubtedly knows Massachusetts well enough to understand the issues of having duplicate facilities in this small state. I am not surprised that he has proposed closing the smaller of these duplicate facilities, the one located in a rural area.
Again, I hate to see the closing of any facility that serves genealogists. I also feel bad for the two employees affected, one of whom I know personally. However, in this case, I have to agree that spending of millions of dollars to keep this particular facility open is not money well spent. I'd suggest spending a small fraction of that money to increase the availability of often-used records to all genealogists around the country. Indeed, let's increase access around the world. Let's make those records available online for all to see and stop spending taxpayers' money maintaining small "boutique" libraries in rural areas.
UPDATE written 22 February: Several people have written with comments or questions that show they did not fully understand this article so I thought I would post a new message here with a clarification. If you go back and read my articles again, you will note that the proposed closure is for the Pittsfield Annex, not of the entire facility. The Annex is often referred to as the Microfilm Reading Room. The Annex and the so-called Microfilm Reading Room are the same thing.
I have gone back and added two sentences to the above article to clarify the area is to be closed: "The proposal is to close this Annex, sometimes called the Microfilm Reading Room. The remainder of the Pittsfield facility will remain in operation."