State Spotlight: California State Archives

Just two blocks from the California State Library in Sacramento is the California State Archives, the agency state leaders established in 1850 to collect, catalog, and preserve the state government’s historic records. The State Archives’ trove of unpublished source documents can be an excellent tool for reference librarians and researchers, as well as for the general public.

Many State Archives holdings are as colorful as California itself. The Department of Corrections collection for example, holds mug shots and inmate records dating from the nineteenth century. And among its six floors of records, the State Archives houses one of its most precious holdings, the handwritten 1849 State Constitution.

Rebecca Wendt, a lead archivist at the agency, says library staff can refer their customers to the State Archives and an archivist will help the customers locate hard to find texts. She says that “its best when customers have specific research requests” because the State Archives does not have a browsing collection. For example, a library customer seeking the reason for his or her traffic ticket would be best served by targeting the State Archives California law documents, a collection many attorneys use for court cases.

The State Archives is also a great resource for library customers interested in genealogy. Wendt says that genealogists find the State Archives’ professional (medical, cosmological and so on) license records dating from the nineteenth century enormously helpful.

Any member of the public can ask an archivist at the State Archives to help locate a document. The archivists will, according to Wendt, “pull files together in boxes or pages and make copies for 25 cents a page." Because archive materials are fragile, the public may not handle the items.

Non-traditional State Archives programs

In addition to its traditional archival duties, the California State Archives administers an Oral Histories program, and leads California’s participation in the national educational outreach program, Archives Month.

Oral Histories

The State Archives’ Oral Histories, interviews with state government officials, members of the media, and “people in the [state government] trenches,” lend subjective insight to the State Archives’ historical texts. Professional oral historians, experts in California policy and politics at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of California at Los Angeles, among others, conduct the recorded interviews. These oral histories have included such public figures as Ronald Reagan, Edmund G. Brown, Sr., long-time legislator Ralph Dills, Proposition 13 champion Paul Gann, California author Carey McWilliams, and former Superintendent of Public Instruction Wilson Riles.

“We liken the oral histories to knowledge mining,” Wendt says.

The histories are available in bound volumes at the State Archives and the California State Library. In addition, the State Archives staff is working hard to put the transcripts on the archives website. People interested in listening to the histories may do so by visiting the State Archives at 1020 "O" Street in Sacramento.

Archives Month

Archives Month (formerly Archives Week), a national campaign that engages the American public in the world of history and research, has been successful at the California State Archives for two years. California’s program promotes the State Archives as available to anyone interested in California history, policy and politics.  During California’s 2005 Archives Week, the State Archives held an open house, gave “behind the scenes” tours, and hosted distinguished speakers who had used archival materials in their work. Wendt reports that the event was extended to a month in 2006 because it is so popular.

Wendt says California’s new Archives Month will offer even more opportunities to show the public what archivists do and why historical records are so important in our culture. This year, Archives Month is in October. The State Archives Open House will be on October 7 and Family History Day will be on October 14th. Please check the State Archives’ events page for upcoming details.

For more information about the State Archives collections, please visit their website. To contact the State Archives directly please call 916-653-7715.

 

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