Another in an occasional series, focusing on the lives and work of former staff of
the National Archives and Records Administration.
Records relating to one's military service have been coming into the custody of
the National Archives and Records Administration since the agency was established.
Retrieved from a garage in Washington, DC, and carefully flattened with the help of
workers from the Works Progress Administration, veterans' pension records were an
early focus of the National Archives' preservation and reference activities.
64-NAD-143, from NAID 518148
Veterans' Bureau records, in garage at
1214 New Hampshire Ave., NW, May 16, 1936
64-PR-26-2, in NAID 18524352
WPA worker preparing pension records for flattening, ca. 1939
The sheer size and scope of these records compelled the Archives to establish an
operating unit devoted solely to the administration and preservation of these records.
And that's where Tom Owen comes in.
Well, you might say I was meant to come work for the National Archives.
This kind of work is our family business.
You see, my father established the Department of Archives and History
for the state of Alabama. It was the first state archives in the country to be
supported with public funds, back in 1901.
Thomas McAdory Owen, Sr.
I helped out in the archives, and eventually became the assistant director.
My mother took over as director when my father died.
But I had also felt the call to military service.
I enlisted in the Alabama National Guard; our state organization eventually
served as part of Douglas MacArthur's 42nd Division in France.
Here I am with my parents and my wife, Mabel, around 1918.
I stayed active in the Guard for the rest of my life.
In 1933 I became the historian for the national organization.
file "VanHook, Frank T., folder 3" in NAID 3720066
After the war, I came back and helped run the State Archives for a while.
Then I directed the federal records surveys for Alabama for the
Civil Works Administration and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration.
And in the spring of '35, I was hired by the National Archives.
Its first order of business was to survey all of the federal records
squirreled away in Washington, DC.
file "Memoranda and Press Releases of the Archivist, 1935-1936"
in NAID 4478137
It was my job to ride herd on the corps of examiners who were poring over
all of the collections of government records scattered about the capital.
Here are the instructions I issued them:
file "Division of Accessions Memoranda 1935-1936"
in NAID 4478137
We sent out our staff photographers to document what they found.
You simply could not imagine the conditions in which these
records had been discovered.
64-NAD-84, in NAID 518148
U.S. Shipping Board Organization records,
in Haley Garage, 21st and Virginia Ave., September 10, 1935
During this time, I also wrote an article about the National Archives
for the Legion's magazine.
In case you're interested, here's a listing of my career up to 1937,
when this entry appeared in our publication Register of the National Archives:
By the end of 1937, the records survey work was winding down, and new
operating units were being set up to handle the flow of records coming
to the Archives. With the new year, I was assigned to head up one of them.
Later that year, my division got a new, more informative name.
both from NAID 3890958
Reference service on the pension files was a large part of the work
of our division. During the war, we needed more shelf space for
the multitude of records that agencies were retiring, so we hit upon
a new way to file the pensions.
Initially we just had to lay them flat on the shelves.
Flat files in Stack S-1804, August 1942
We tried shelving them another way. And it was a big success.
Vertical files in Stack S-2003, August 1942
all from file "Records - Preservation - Flat Filing", in NAID 12209376
Of course, when those new cardboard containers from Remington Rand
finally arrived, we moved the files into them.
64-NA-370 (NAID 12168986)
Archivist Bess Glenn, right, with staff during packing project
in the Division of Navy Department Archives, National Archives, 1942
Well, it was quite a career, I surely can say. I think that the most meaningful
thing for me has been working on behalf of all of my fellow veterans and their families.
file "1948" in NAID 7582964
From the Summer 2010 issue of "Prologue":