State Opens Dusty Files

OCT. 1, 2010

On Thursday I took a break from high-speed rail controversies and death penalty analysis by walking over to the State Archives.  Located a block away from the Capitol, the Archives are home to our state’s most precious documents – copies of our earliest constitutions, hand-drawn maps dating back two centuries and, when he finally leaves office and trucks over all his administration’s papers, that one letter where Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger allegedly wrote “Fuck you” to the state Assembly using the first letter of each line.

The occasion of my trip was a special press-only guided tour of the Archives’ stacks and preservation labs in anticipation of this Saturday’s State Archives Open House, which will celebrate California Archives Month. Now I know, you’re all thinking that the excitement of going into the state Archive’s inner sanctum would just be too much, too wild and crazy to deal with, but somehow, I managed.

Actually, given my line of work, and the vanity that comes with wanting to see my writing preserved for something longer than 24 hours, wandering through our state’s filing cabinets and staring at centuries-old records can be quite enjoyable. In fact, other than the state Legislature, it’s arguable that the state Archives are the most important agency in government.

“The very first law in 1850 directed the creation of archives,” state Archivist Nancy Zimmelman Lenoil, who acted as my tour guide, told me. Lenoil knows archives – she’s worked for the state Archives for 23 years, the last four as boss of whole deal. She’s also the first woman to hold the job.

Lenoil began my tour in the Stacks, a cavernous room much like a warehouse, filled with gray metal cabinet eight shelves high that held boxes and boxes of old records from every state agency, as well as rolled up maps here and there. I asked Lenoil how many new records the Archives accepts each year.

“We don’t think in terms of records, we think in terms of cubic feet,” she said. “We get about 4,000 cubic feet a year.”

That’s not too bad – about the volume held by a flat-bottom gondola rail car. But Lenoil added that since the Schwarzenegger administration will be coming to end soon, the Archives will soon take possession of all of his papers, and that could be an additional 4,000 cubic feet, all of which could deluge her office in as little as three days. “At the end of the (Gray) Davis and (Pete) Wilson administrations, we received thousands of boxes,” she said.

Lenoil showed me a number of old California documents. Like a Controller’s Warrant from 1853 paying $300 to California Rangers Captain Harry Love for capturing the bandit Joaquin Murrieta (it was a huge sum at the time, and the state eventually paid Love $1,000).

There was also an 1844 Mexican land grant of about 10 square leagues of land — named Rancho Del Paso — near the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers to Eliab Grimes (an apparent ancestor to my colleague Katy Grimes’ husband). That document, nothing more than a crudely drawn map, was in Spanish.

“From 1849 to 1879, all public documents had to be in English and Spanish,” Lenoil said. “And the originals were in Spanish. The Gold Rush brought so many English speaking people that the provision was eventually eliminated.”

One of the oldest papers held by the state is a 1798 census of the San Diego Mission, showing the numbers of Indians and Spaniards. Looking closely at it, I noticed that the right portion of the document seemed to be a newer piece of paper that someone had written on with a pencil. When I asked what the deal was, Lenoil shifted uneasily.

“That document was laminated,” she said, explaining that old document preservation dogma was based on heat-pressing old papers between sheets of plastic. “We certainly don’t do that anymore because it’s not reversible. When our old building went down, the old laminator went with it.”

In the preservation lab, Kevin Turner showed me more modern techniques for preserving paper records (their goal, Lenoil said, is to keep records archived for a century, but they can often keep paper intact for much longer periods of time). He was rebinding a massive red book that once held hand-written records of inmate boys at the old Whittier State School a century ago (later renamed the Fred C. Nelles Youth Correctional Facility, this reform school coincidentally stood about a mile from the house I grew up in).

Lenoil ended the tour in the Archive’s Research Room, telling me that in 2005 a new law passed opening all of the Archive’s records – including old reform school books like the one Turner was working on – to the public after they pass the 75-year mark. It’s a huge gift to anyone working on genealogical research, but Lenoil told me that’s not the Archives’ top research request.

“Our most frequently used records are legislative,” she said.

Given how the Legislature typically acts, this doesn’t surprise me at all.

-Anthony Pignataro

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