Washington’s archives can no longer hold its history

OLYMPIA — In a few days, the bill signed by Gov. Jay Inslee enabling undocumented students to receive state financial aid will be delivered to the Washington State Archives for safekeeping.

It will be preserved with the other bills he’s signed, as well as his executive orders, proclamations and a declaration of a moratorium on executions, for future generations to read.

How long it remains in the underground, temperature-controlled, fireproof vault is uncertain.

Washington is running out of space to store its history.

The three-floor repository filled up in 2005, forcing archival documents to be shelved in the State Records Center warehouse in Tumwater. Agencies send thousands of boxes of records there for keeping until they can be legally destroyed.

As a result, each new box of historic materials generated by the Inslee administration forces a box of older keepsakes from preceding executives, state leaders, Supreme Court justices and others to be shifted around in the 47,000-square-foot building, or shipped out.

“We will keep Governor Inslee’s stuff here. Then the question is, what do we boot out?” said state Archivist Steve Excell. “Governor (Chris) Gregoire is scattered in every nook and cranny in the archives, and we’ve still had to send some to the records center.”

Records of Paull Shin, the recently retired senator from Edmonds, are heading directly to the overflow area at the Records Center. Nearly every extradition order signed by a governor since statehood is also there.

So, too, are files and audiotapes from the 1980 federal investigation known as Gamscam, which resulted in the convictions of three lawmakers on racketeering and other charges.

But the Records Center overflow is expected to be full by the end of the year. That’s what prompted Secretary of State Kim Wyman, who oversees the archives, to ask lawmakers for funding to rent additional warehouse space and begin planning for a new building.

She’s asked for $250,000 for a study to put a new facility in the Olympia area to house the archives and state library. She’s also asked for $105,900 to secure a multi-year lease for 25,000 square feet of warehouse space and $707,500 to pay for shelving and equipment.

This week, she got the good news that the Senate and the House had each included money in their proposed supplemental budgets.

“This gives us some breathing room,” Wyman said Thursday. “It’s critical we make sure this stuff is going to be here for my kids, my grandkids and future generations. I don’t want to see any piece of history not cared for on my watch.”

Millions and millions of records

Built in 1963, the state archives building is 47,900 square feet, including three floors below ground, across the street from the state Capitol.

It is where one-of-a-kind documents are preserved, the original versions of the most significant legal and historical records of government dating back to statehood in 1889.

There are opinions issued by Supreme Courts, signed bills and daily journals of governors, intake logs of state prisons and leather-bound books containing photos of inmates.

On one of the three floors are documents from several counties: birth and death certificates, land-use maps and historic photos.

Most Snohomish County records are stored in a state-managed repository on the campus of Western Washington University, Excell said. That location is also running out of space.

Only about 2 percent of all records received each year need to be kept forever.

The rest wind up in the Records Center, shelved for three to eight years before they’re shredded.

The 47,200-square-foot Records Center was built in 1992 and enlarged in 2003. At the end of January it held 322,163 boxes of records plus 397,163 files of convicted criminals from the Department of Corrections. In all, that’s about 910 million records, according to figures provided by the Secretary of State’s Office.

Most of those boxes are stacked 32 high in the main room of the warehouse, where there are 26 aisles of shelving, nearly all 180 feet long.

Historical records — predominantly folders containing those prison and community corrections files of convicted criminals — are in the addition. Unlike the archives, the temperature and humidity there are not controlled, putting the long-term preservation of the documents at risk.

Each year, the state takes in about 2,500 boxes of archival records and 28,000 boxes of materials from state agencies. An average of 14,000 boxes of records are disposed of annually.

Archivists don’t control when these records will arrive or how many are coming.

“We never know what’s going to come through that door,” Excell said.

One day former governor Dan Evans delivered a full archival box of 8-by-10 photos of his 1964 and 1968 campaigns, Excell said.

Another day, former Senate Majority Leader Gordon Walgren brought in several boxes with the Gamscam files and tapes, which led to his conviction and later exit from office.

And seemingly every day, boxes containing purchase orders, paycheck stubs and other types of business records flood into the Tumwater warehouse.

First effort fell through

Former Secretary of State Sam Reed saw this day coming a decade ago. That’s when work began on the Washington State Heritage Center, a new building on the Capitol Campus for the archives and library.

Design was mostly done and fees were being collected to pay for construction when the recession hit. Then the project was abandoned.

Excell said no one is looking to restart that project. Instead, they want to ensure that the bare necessities for an archives and library are provided. That means proper facilities for storage of historically important materials and rooms for reading and research, she said.

Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, chairman of the Senate Capital Budget Committee, backed funding because he knows the agency is running out of room.

But he also added language in the capital budget requiring Wyman to gather together representatives from the agencies generating the most paper records to figure out how they can reduce the volume by 10 percent by the end of 2016.

“We want them to look at creating and keeping records in electronic form,” he said. “Right now (agencies) get a record electronically, print it out and throw it in a box for the archives.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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