HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – David Carmicheal, Director of State Archives, is a very happy man right now. If all goes as planned, next year the archives will move to a new building.
“I think it will be much more open and welcoming for people to come and spend an afternoon doing historical research,” he said.
The new structure, currently being erected on Sixth and Hamilton Streets in Harrisburg, will be a building within a building.
“One is a large windowless box,” says Carmicheal, “and will store all the records. It’s like the treasure box. But the whole facade of the building is this tall glass, almost like an atrium, where people can come in and use the disks.
So what kind of treasures will go in the treasure chest? Aaron McWilliams, head of the public service, can tell you. His job is to find documents for researchers.
“The documents in our collection span from the formation of Pennsylvania, the Charter, until virtually today,” he says. “Most of it is state documents, but we have other items that have entered our collections. In fact, we have manuscript groups, over 500 manuscript groups, and these are non-government documents. These are registers of individuals and companies. For example, we have the Penn Central collection, it’s the Pennsylvania Railroad, which is one of the biggest collections we have.
They also have a large collection of military documents, from the Revolutionary War to World War I, as well as maps, photographs and postcards, all of which will be transferred to the new building. Director Carmicheal does not wait to receive the keys to the new place. Archives staff are already preparing the funds for the move. He showed us the fourteenth floor.
“This floor is pretty much ready to move,” he says. “And what that means is that we went through each box and checked the contents of the box so that what our finding aid says is in that box is actually in that box. We bar coded it. the box. Until we started preparing for the move, the boxes weren’t numbered. they were right, you had a collection, and “that was the first box in this collection”, now each box has a So when we get to the new building, all of these shelves, the 44,000 of those shelves, will have a barcode and when we put the box on a shelf, we’ll scan the barcode on the box. and the shelf barcode, and we’ll know exactly where that box is at all times.
Constructing a new building is an expensive business, especially a specialized structure such as an archive. So you have to ask yourself, 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 looked like,” says Carmicheal. “And you know, in the modern digital age, it fights us all the time. It’s about 17 floors, depending on how you count the floors, 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 documents, they sit in our research room and we bring them the documents they want, and they wait there.
There are issues with climate control, exacerbated by the shape of the building. (Monoliths are great for capturing sunlight.) Fluctuations in temperature and humidity are bad for old documents. And did we mention the building leaks?
“We haven’t lost any records because of it, but we are always, when there is a heavy rain storm, we are always very worried,” says Carmicheal. “We have plastic on a lot of floors, just so we can throw it on the records. “
The new building is not only equipped with better technology, it also reflects a change in mindset in the archiving community.
“When this building was built,” says Carmicheal, “the attitude back then was very possessive towards historical documents,“ we are the government if you want to see the documents you need to be worthy of seeing them.
“Our new building will reflect a very changed attitude over the past 50 years. “These are the public archives, they paid for them with their tax money, they are theirs”, and it will be very welcoming.
So what will become of the current archives building? Well, don’t expect it to be demolished.
“It’s on the national register,” says Carmicheal. “It’s really 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 a lot in Harrisburg. It will still belong to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. And they do a feasibility study, they have a number of ideas on how to use the building. And the feasibility study will clarify what they want to do, so wait. “
But old or new, Aaron McWilliams says one thing will stay the same: the special “wow” moments.
“You always find something new when you help someone research their family,” says McWilliams. “It’s not some type of topical event, nothing that you are going to find in the history books, but the families of the people, there are stories there, and sometimes you find this document. that bares everything, and it’s like, wow. Some people have worked for years looking for, or researching a parent’s material, and when they find it they sometimes get emotional. And we get emotional too, it’s great to see that, it’s great that we can help.