HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — David Carmicheal, Director of the State Archives, is a very happy man right now. If all goes as planned, sometime next year the archives will move into a new building.
“I think it’ll be much more open and welcoming to people to just come in and spend an afternoon doing historical research,” he said.
The new structure, now being erected at Sixth and Hamilton Streets in Harrisburg, will be a building within a building.
“One is a big box that is windowless,” says Carmicheal, “and will store all the records. It’s like the treasure box. But the whole front of the building is this large glass, almost atrium feeling, where people can come in and use the records.”
So what sort of treasures will go into the treasure chest? Aaron McWilliams, head of public service, can tell you. His job is to find documents for researchers.
“The documents in our collection cover from the forming of Pennsylvania, the Charter, all the way up to basically today,” he says. “The bulk of it is state records, but we do have other items that have made it into our collections. In fact, we have manuscript groups, over 500 manuscript groups, and those are non-government records. These are records of private individuals and companies. For instance, we have the Penn Central collection, that’s the Pennsylvania Railroad, which is one of the larger collections that we have.”
They also have a large collection of military-related records, from the revolutionary war to World War I, As well as maps, photographs, and postcards, all of which will be moving to the new building. Director Carmicheal isn’t waiting to get the keys to the new place. Archive staff are already preparing the holdings for the move. He showed us floor fourteen.
“This floor is pretty much ready to move,” he says. “And what that means is we have gone through every box and verified the contents of the box so that what our finding aid says is in this box, is actually in this box. We have bar-coded the box. Until we started preparing for the move the boxes were not numbered. they were just, you had a collection, and ‘this was box one of this collection’, now every box has a number. So when we get to the new building all of those shelves, all 44,000 of those shelves, will be barcoded and when we put the box on a shelf, we will scan the box barcode, and shelf barcode, and we’ll know right where that box is anytime.”
Building a new building is an expensive undertaking, especially a specialized structure like an archive. So you have to ask, what’s wrong with the old building?
“Our current building was state of the art when the IBM Selectric was state of the art, for people who still remember what the IBM Selectric typewriter was like,” says Carmicheal. “And you know in a modern digital age, it just fights us all the time. It’s about 17 stories tall, depending on how you count the floors, and so it takes a long time to go up and down and grab records and bring them down. When people come to use the original records, they sit in our search room and we bring them the records they want, and they sit there waiting.”
There are issues with climate control, exacerbated by the building’s shape. (Monoliths are great for catching the sunlight.) Temperature and humidity fluctuations are bad for old documents. And did we mention the building leaks?
“We’ve not lost any records from that but we’re always, when there’s a heavy rainstorm, we’re always very worried,” explains Carmicheal. “We have plastic on many of the floors, just so we can throw them over the records.”
The new building not only has better technology, it also reflects a change in thinking in the archiving community.
“When this building was built,” says Carmicheal, “attitude at the time was very possessive of the historical records, ‘we’re the government if you want to see the records you need to be worthy of seeing them.’
“Our new building is going to reflect a very changed attitude over the last 50 years. ‘These are the public’s records, they paid for them with their tax dollars, they are theirs to use,” and it’s going to be very welcoming.
So what will become of the current archive building? Well, don’t expect it to be torn down.
“It’s on the national register,” says Carmicheal. “It really is a historic building at this point, it’s well over 50 years old now, and it’s a great example of that kind of brutalist architecture, you don’t see many of them in Harrisburg. It will still belong to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. And they are doing a feasibility study, they have a number of ideas of how to use the building. And the feasibility study will clarify what they want to do, so stand by. “
But old building or new, Aaron McWilliams says one thing will stay the same–the special “wow” moments.
“You always turn up something new when you’re helping someone do some type of research on their family,” says McWilliams. “It’s not some type of news event, nothing like you’re going to find in the history books, but peoples’ families, there are stories there, and sometimes you find that document that lays it all bare, and that’s like, wow. Some people have worked for years looking for a document on a relative, or in their research, and when they find it they sometimes do get emotional. And we get emotional too, it’s great to see it, it’s great that we could help.”