Close up image of a memorial in Washington D.C.

When the government shutdown was merely looming, all the major news outlets were atwitter with what such a shutdown would do, and more importantly, what it would NOT do, i.e. affect any of the government’s “essential services.”

The news outlets explained:

The Post Office would still run (thanks to independent funding), but the National Parks would close. Most other offices would undergo a “partial shutdown.” This explanation was so vague that people grabbed on to the National Parks story so they could have something concrete to talk about. Thus, dire warnings of lost tourism dollars and upset vacationers made the news because they were easy topics, not because the closed parks represented a failure of the government to perform its “essential services.”

And then the shutdown came. And the National Parks closed. And the IRS put a hold on conducting audits. And some government offices did the EXTRA work of putting up a “We’re Closed” page on their web portals, just to annoy people and drive the point home.

Screen shot of the National Park Service Closed Notice Screen shot of the Library of Congress Closed Notice

And the National Archives closed (partially).

Which got no press.

As of this writing, we are in Day 11 of the Great Government Shutdown of 2013. The closed National Parks have started to become a real problem. The partial shutdown of other major offices have been met with little to no dismay (see above re: IRS). And some folks have noted that without NASA, nobody is looking out for asteroids (or aliens).

So what is essential, then? The military. And the tax collectors at the IRS, who are probably raiding the office kitchen for any goodies that the auditors left behind. And Social Security, SNAP, and unemployment benefits disbursements, so that the most vulnerable Americans can still get by.

The maintenance and continued accessibility by the people to our national memory and culture, however, is not deemed an “essential service” of the government. I was horrified by this, and then was so glad, and so proud, when veterans stormed the World War II Memorial in D.C.

But nobody seems to be complaining about reduced access to the National Archives and complete closure of the Smithsonian museums. To me, NARA and the Smithsonian are just as important as the World War II Memorial, and we as citizens ought to consider our right of access to these resources just as seriously as the veterans took their right of access to the memorial.

But, collectively, we don’t.

After all, the museums will open again. Visitors can come another time. NARA will be open again after the shutdown. But the World War II Memorial would have opened again, too.

This lukewarm reaction is how we know that we, as archivists, are not doing a good enough job on advocating, not just for our own jobs in our own institutions, but for archives as a whole as an effective tool to hold organizations, including the U.S. Government, accountable for their actions.

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