Washington State Archives

Washington state’s nearly 60-year-old archives facility is woefully outdated and inadequate.

One of the primary duties and pleasures of being an adult is conveying knowledge of the past to future generations. Accomplished through storytelling, archiving records, and preserving physical reminders of people and events, this mission is as old as our species.

Passing along recollections is an essential human trait and responsibility. We neglect this task at our peril. To disrespect memory is to disrespect our parents and grandparents. It is to squander hard-won lessons and risk repeating avoidable mistakes.

In Washington state, this mission is largely delegated to the secretary of state’s office, which oversees the Washington State Archives in Olympia and Washington State Library in Tumwater. There are other institutions that also serve as our memory — the Burke Museum at the University of Washington, the Museum of History & Industry on South Lake Union, and the Seattle Art Museum all are worth our time and attention. Locally, we should appreciate and help fund the Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum, the Pacific County Historical Society & Museum, and the Columbia River Maritime Museum. But our state archives and library perform functions that aren’t duplicated anywhere else. They deserve special attention.

For such a wealthy and history-packed state, our physical archives and library are close to scandalously under-supported. Go to the Oregon State Archives in Salem and you will encounter a temple-like space devoted to the heroic, sad and mundane facts of western settlement. Bright and functional, it’s a perfect place to conduct research of all kinds. Genealogists are particularly well served by Oregon’s collection and easy access to it.

Washington’s main archives are another story entirely. As the secretary of state’s office recently put it, “The deterioration of the circa-1962 Washington State Archives building puts priceless, irreplaceable historic documents at risk of catastrophic destruction by a fire or flood and needs to be addressed by the Legislature immediately.”

It’s remarkable what you may encounter in our archives. While looking for something else years ago, for example, the Observer’s editor came across the Boeing Company’s original trademark filings. Such celebration-worthy things deserve careful stewardship.

Secretary of State Kim Wyman is leading efforts to address this situation, following in the footsteps of her two most recent predecessors. The latest serious attempt to provide appropriate facilities was derailed by the 2008 recession. Now it’s time to revive it.

“Our State Archives building lacks fire suppression for most records areas. It regularly suffers leaks from the water and sewer pipes that hang from the concrete ceilings in archival storage areas,” Wyman said. “Our Legislature has a tremendous opportunity this year to resolve this longstanding and worsening need, while simultaneously making wise use of state resources by consolidating a number of divisions into one location.”

The Legislature appropriated $5 million for design work and project planning in 2018. Building on that preliminary investment, Wyman is proposing an approriation for siting, architectural, and fiscal planning to account for the full logistics of the new building. We encourage our legislators to fund Wyman’s request.

As a closing note, Washington’s growing program of providing online access to many records is a model of what all states should do. For anyone with ancestry here or a need to perform academic research, the digital archives are an interesting assortment of useful data. The Cheney-based collection may be accessed at https://www.digitalarchives.wa.gov. This isn’t a substitute for a new state archive and library, but it’s nevertheless quite remarkable.

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