Saturday, June 16, 2018
A Wish for a Local Archives
Watching in horror the newsreels of the Aberdeen fire, just one week ago, which caused one hundred years of local history to go up in flames reminded me of one thing: at least Aberdeen had an archives of historic material to lose. Some counties don't even have the luxury—or the foresight—to lose such a collection. Count my hometown among those without a county archives.
The first time I turned green over such a dilemma wasn't last week, of course. It was when two of my genealogy friends returned from a road trip up to the foothills to check into some family history in Calaveras County. If you are not familiar with California territory, Calaveras was the place made famous by Mark Twain and his yarn about a "celebrated jumping frog." It's considered part of Gold Country, though it is a tiny county which even now has less than forty six thousand residents.
When my friends arrived in Calaveras County, they had already arranged for an appointment to view some documents at the county archives. Note, incidentally, that a county of forty six thousand residents can actually get their act together to preserve their county's history through an archival collection. I can hardly say that for my own county, though the city I live nearest boasts a population of three hundred thousand—far more than the entire county of Calaveras.
Their visit came complete with exactly the documentation they were seeking. What more could a researcher ask? Besides, as tiny as the county may have been, their archivist was thoroughly professional and was a great support in the process of obtaining the required documents.
Perhaps, you may be thinking, this is an aberration. Not all small counties will necessarily have such a will to preserve their historic local documentation, you may be thinking.
Not so, if we take a look at another neighboring county archives. This time, let's look to Amador County, just north of Calaveras in northern California. Amador County happens to be even smaller than Calaveras County, having a population less than forty thousand. And yet they, too, manage to provide an archives—though admittedly, theirs is staffed by volunteers.
Amador, in case you are not from around here, is the county in the heart of Gold Country, and its county seat is Jackson, the place where I found the photograph of Hazel, the mystery girl from Aberdeen, which got this whole thing started about checking into resources for the local scoop on county history up there.
But both of these counties in Gold Country are admittedly small places. What about midsized counties in our state? Yolo County, to the west of our state's capital, has a population above two hundred fifteen thousand, and they have an archives. Perhaps their facility is made possible by the formation of the Friends of the Yolo County Archives, a nonprofit group founded in 1987 to support the services and the facility.
If the population of Yolo County is around two hundred fifteen thousand, that is about the same count as the population for my own city—back in the 1990s. Now, the population of our entire county is pushing toward seven hundred fifty thousand, a far cry from tiny Amador or Calaveras. And yet, where is our county archives? I'm afraid much of the material that could benefit from archival standards is tucked away in boxes in basements of county offices and other repositories, inaccessible to the public other than through great forbearance.
If the mission of local genealogical societies is to be an advocate—or perhaps even a catalyst—for the preservation of material aiding historical research, how can we as societies be an advocate in support of proper archiving of the stuff of local history? In our case, we may have to start with a fresh inventory of who the players are—those individuals with a keen desire to make these treasures of history accessible to all. It may not be an easy quest, but it sure needs to be a process that is started, not merely talked about. While history may not seem an important budget item for some, it is a foundational pursuit for the benefit of our future.