HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the research room of the Pennsylvania State Archives closed to the public and it has been reopening slowly ever since.
“We had closed down in 2020,” said Aaron Williams, the head of the archive’s public service section. “By the summer of 2021, things had reduced down to a level where we thought it was safe to at least open up, only to a limited amount of people as a precaution. We’ve had “appointment only”, drastically restricted who could get in here, only a few people a day when we were regularly open.”
McWilliams notes that even with restrictions, they did their best to accommodate people who showed up unannounced.
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“If we couldn’t pull the record or do something for them immediately, we’d help them schedule an appointment. If it was something we could answer right away, we certainly did, and sent them on their way.”
But this week, the last restrictions will be lifted.
“April 6 is when we’re pretty much going back to normal operation, where we can have walk-ins,” McWilliams said. “Everybody can pretty much show up, Wednesday through Friday, and do research.”
Having walk-ins again will take the staff some getting used to. “It’s been so long since we’ve had walk-ins,” says McWilliams. “We’ve kind of gotten accustomed now to it being quiet, being few people in here, and knowing exactly what they’ll be working on. With walk-ins, you never know what comes in through the door. I think it’s exciting. I enjoy the walk-ins and the challenge they present”
“They can come in, knowing exactly what they want in our collection, from our catalog online, or knowing absolutely nothing of what we hold. And we will work with them to help identify specific records that will help them with their research, and see which way or how we can make those records available, either by microfilm, digital format, or if we have to we’ll pull the original to look at.”
Pulling the originals is the most time consuming way to access documents, since a staff member has to go up in their main storage area, the twenty-story tower, find the document, and bring it down to the research room.
Quicker and easier-the microfilm collection. There are over 30,000 microfilms, stored right in the research area. There are dozens of microfilm readers for viewing the records.
Quickest and easiest-the digital collection. They have terminals in the research room, or you can browse in the comfort of your own home. The State Archivists have put a lot of effort into putting their collection online.
“We’ve got tens of millions of documents online, that people can not only access in the state, but throughout the country and throughout the world,” says McWilliams.
But don’t digital records cut into research room use? “Yes, as we’ve put more and more records on, you have seen certain kinds of groups and individuals fall off on the wayside, the numbers are down a bit,” says McWilliams. “But while those genealogists and those people who have been working on the digital format have gone down, we’ve also seen kind of an uptick in historians and other folks that have come in for the records that aren’t available online, to use our records. We also get a lot of folks that come in that just don’t know what we have, or think we have certain records, and we try to do our best to direct them to where to find those things to help them along their way.”
McWilliams says he looks forward to reopening.
“For me it’s kind of a sense of relief. The way that it has been with appointments, it’s been hard for some people to get in here, and you always have that little disappointment, when I have to turn people away or say sorry we can’t do that and they say ‘well, I’ve been waiting for so long’. But now we can tell people to just come right in. We can help you.”