Last Tuesday, September 9, I attended the open house celebration held by the NASA Headquarters History Program Office for the reopening of the historical reference collection. The collection, housed at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., is a wealth of information for historical researchers and NASA employees. It contains nearly 2,000 cubic feet of material, including correspondence, press releases, news articles, and other historical documents arranged by subject, indexed down to the folder level, and retrieved using keywords within lengthy folder descriptions. The collection also includes hundreds of biographical files on individuals important in NASA’s history, and a small audiovisual collection.
NASA Headquarters is undergoing a large renovation, which began in fall 2012. The renovation started on the top floor, moving slowly down as the construction team completes each floor. Last summer, Chief Archivist Jane Odom and her small group packed up the entire reference collection, housed on the bottom floor of HQ, and moved it off site. Once workers completed construction on the new rooms, the archivists moved everything back in, placing each box in the collection into a new location. Since the rooms are now completely different than the former arrangement, Jane and her team spent months creating a new a catalog to let them know where they put everything. With some 30,000 files in the collection, this was no easy feat!
The event on Tuesday commemorating the reopening started with a brief speech by NASA Chief Historian Dr. Bill Barry. David Weaver, NASA's Associate Administrator for Communications, then cut the ribbon over the door to the reference collection rooms, and a group of guests made its way into the new rooms, enjoying good conversation and of course, Moon Pies.
The new layout of the rooms is an impressive change from the old arrangement, and the place looks fantastic. Archivists Liz Suckow, Colin Fries, and John Hargenrader were on hand to show off the new features, including roomy, well-lit desks for researchers, a far more efficient new filing system, and a bit of room for the collection to expand, which had become a desperate situation in the old digs.
NASA’s History Office dates back to 1959, when the agency’s first administrator, T. Keith Glennan, established it to inform future NASA managers, but also to preserve and disseminate information about the agency to the public. Since then, the office has served not just internal NASA customers, but a diverse group of citizens interested in NASA’s past activities including scholars, journalists, independent researchers, and a variety of history and policy students. One of the functions of the NASA history office is to fund and oversee writing and publication of histories concerning NASA activities. Like the archives, these special publications are produced by experts in history and policy, but are made available to broader audiences. I’ll look at some of those products in a later post.
For the many researchers who wish to use the collection, the archival team has put a tremendous amount of information online and continues to digitize more material, but the sheer volume of documents in the collection makes this a long-term project. As researchers complete various writing projects, they often supply the archivists with copies of their narratives, occasionally unpublished historical manuscripts, and even photocopies of important documents retrieved from other archives. Thus, the NASA historical reference collection functions as the Headquarters archive, but also provides glimpses into archival holdings at a number of other repositories. The federal government provides guidelines to agencies about what information should be kept for historical purposes, so many important NASA documents can be found at the National Archives, Presidential libraries spread around the country, and several NASA facilities.
One of the best things about researching at the NASA historical reference collection is the assistance provided by Jane, Liz, Colin, John, and the rest of the team. I have traveled to a few archives over the years, and I agree with colleagues who have been to many more archives than I when they say that the quality of an archive visit often depends on the ability and willingness of the archivists to help a researcher navigate the material. The NASA HQ archival specialists are some of the most knowledgeable – and most helpful – individuals I’ve had the pleasure to work with. Those who won’t be in the DC area in the near future can still identify many useful resources at the NASA historical reference collection webpage.
If you are interested in conducting research at the NASA HQ historical reference collection, you can make an appointment at 202-358-0384 or email them at [email protected]. Be sure to give them at least two days notice, as they will need to fill out building entry paperwork for non-NASA visitors.