California’s priceless, irreplaceable legal history is being dripped on, chilled, overheated, chomped by bugs and threatened by fires, earthquakes and thieves.
“California is about the only major state and one of the few states that has its archives lodged in as decrepit a structure,” said John Burns, the state’s chief archivist.
The more than 120 million items stored in the state archives are in a 63-year-old building that was designed as the state printing plant.
The archives include such invaluable things as the original state Constitution, handwritten on vellum (animal hide) in 1849; census records dating to 1798 and all the decisions of the state Supreme Court.
No Exhibit Halls
But the building’s roof leaks, it has no temperature and humidity controls, it has never been made seismically safe and it has no fire suppression system, Burns said. And there are no secure exhibit halls where Californians can view some of the state’s important and interesting historical documents.
A law passed by the Legislature last year that went into effect Jan. 1 requires Secretary of State March Fong Eu, who oversees the archives, to spend $100,000 on a study of whether the old building can be renovated or a new one built to house the archives for the next 50 years.
The study should be done by next summer, after which Eu and Burns will have to go to the Legislature and Gov. George Deukmejian for the money to either renovate the old building or build a new one.
The first aspect of the study will be the seismic safety of the building, a three-story gray edifice a block from the Capitol. Burns said engineers have informally told him that the old building is not earthquake safe and would probably cost too much to renovate.
“My gut feeling is we’re going to be looking at a new building,” he said. The study will in that event provide drawings, possible sites and estimated costs for a new building, which would probably take five years to complete.
Most states house their archives in a building specially designed for the purpose. Keeping tons of valuable paper documents and preserving them for the future requires a building that is strong, has no windows because light fades paper, is seismically safe, is secure from intruders with secure public display areas, can be kept at a constant 65 degrees and 50% humidity to protect the documents, and has a modern system of fire alarms and fire suppression,a using a gas rather than sprinklers that would destroy the papers.
Burns, who has held his job for 3 1/2 years and is an appointee of the secretary of state, explained that archives hold “the original historical records of state government from the inception of the state.”
“State archives material is unique. It’s not replicable. It is the legal and historical foundation of the state,” he said.
Loss of the papers, which could occur in a large fire, “would jeopardize the historical and legal records of the state and could have severe financial consequences.”
The material in the archives includes papers that have not been published in book form; published items are in the state library.
But the archives do not contain all papers put out by the state, only about 1% of the massive paper work generated by the state government.
Much of an archivist’s work is selection, said Burns, who has degrees in history and archives administration.
“You can’t save everything. The appraisal process by which we save documents is the biggest job. You have to decide what will be important in the future.”
The archives are used by historians, lawyers, legal researchers, archeologists, museum officials, people who restore old buildings, genealogists and others who need accurate records of historical California. A reading room is open to the public and people can see any of the documents, which can be retrieved from the stacks by archives staff.
Formal archives are a relatively new phenomenon. Until 1955, all the records were kept in the basement of the Capitol in a haphazard fashion by a clerk, called the “keeper of the archives,” who was part of the secretary of state’s office. And state government, until recent decades, didn’t produce that much paper work.
Alabama established the oldest professional state archives in 1901. The federal government founded the National Archives in the mid-1930s. Most states didn’t establish archives until after World War II.
In 1955, California moved its archives into its present building, which had been the state printing plant and was believed sturdy enough to hold the weight of tons of paper.
But Burns said the building was never renovated to be suitable as an archives. A concrete-block vault of less than 1,000 square feet was built with a locking steel door to house the most valuable documents: the Constitution and land grants dating from the 1700s and early 1800s.
But elsewhere, the temperature ranges from 40 degrees to 90 degrees, the humidity cannot be controlled, the building is not airtight against the intrusion of insects and the roof leaks onto third-floor documents.
All Burns can do is cover the stacks in the third floor with plastic sheets each winter.
“Here we’ve got the most valuable documents anywhere in the state and we have to protect them with plastic sheets. It’s ridiculous,” he said.
Burns says he believes that the Legislature will support spending the funds that will be needed for a modern state archives. Eu also strongly supports the project.