Preservers of state history seek to collaborate instead of competing with each other

February 08, 2012

As Arizona celebrates its 100-year anniversary next week, state archivists are trying to better preserve the state’s next century of history.  Instead of competing with each other, historical organizations have agreed to cooperate. From Phoenix, KJZZ’s Paul Atkinson reports.

Libby Coyner opens a box that sits on a table inside a secured room of the Polly Rosenbaum Archives and History building near the state capitol. She pulls out a copy of a Phoenix police report from a notorious murder case.

"Don Bolles, 47 years," reads Coyner, "received serious injuries from a bomb explosion while sitting in his vehicle in the parking lot of the Clarendon hotel at 401 W Clarendon on 6-2-76."

Coyner’s job is to archive the many boxes of documents from police and prosecutors in the murder of an Arizona Republic investigative reporter. 

"In some cases it just seems like people emptied their desk drawers into a box," she says.

State Archives collects material of historical value from state agencies, but also accepts items from individuals, families and groups. Director Melanie Sturgeon says her department often competed with other historical organizations for the same material -- a strategy that Sturgeon thinks wasn’t in the best interest of preserving the state’s history.

"So, we decided we needed to stop that and really work together," says Sturegon.  "Because when you’re fighting over large collections sometimes there are really important little collections that they overlooked because people are going after the big one."

Instead of competing with each other, the 13 larger historical societies and museums in Arizona began to collaborate. They shared information on what collections they had—both processed and unprocessed like the Bolles files. Linda Whitaker is an archivist for the Arizona Historical Foundation and the Arizona Historical Society.

"That allowed us to identify those areas we were not collecting," says Whitaker.  "Not documenting sufficiently."

Whitaker says she and her fellow archivists made a list of topics that were missing or underrepresented in historical collections. It includes farmers who did business in Mexico or hired migrant labor; the consolidation of the health care industry and the history of gay and minority communities.

"There’s a collection at ASU, the Chicano-Chicano collection, but that seems to be our largest one and in a lot of areas there is nothing collected," notes Sturgeon. "And it’s important for us to do that. I mean this is our history. This is something we need."

Sturgeon says historical organizations will soon publicize the list of subjects they’re interested in collecting. In the meantime, instead of taking any photos, documents, or other artifacts given to them, each institution will direct donors to the organization best suited for the material.  Archivist Linda Whitaker says Arizona is the first state in the nation to take this approach.

"This is real trail blazing," says Whitaker. "I think it changes the collecting environment for the entire state."

Whitaker says Arizona got a late start preserving its first 100 years of history. She hopes the collaborative effort will ensure a better job is done over the next century.

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