County archivists preserve, celebrate our history

AskAnArchivistDayWithin King County Archives’ climate controlled vault resides the first record of marriage in Seattle, the minutes of an 1853 County Commissioners’ proceedings for the Washington Territory and a blueprint of a 1915 King County Ferry.

The documents were just a few of the artifacts Archives chosen to highlight for the nonprofit Historical Seattle’s workshop called “Digging Deeper.” The King County Archives was the last stop in the six month series where participants visited a different archive each month to get a behind-the-scenes look into research materials in the many archives in Seattle and King County.

“They wanted to increase their members’ comfort level with conducting searches within the archives,” Carol Shenk, a County archivist, said of the Digger Deeper series, something that she was very happy to support.

Shenk gave a presentation outlining the resources the County Archives provides the public and County government. Greg Lange, who serves as reference staff at the Archives and is an expert in property research, then provided an in-depth workshop on how to research a building’s history, helping participants understand the types of information that can be gleaned from various documents, such as who owned a property, when and for how long, and how a building changed over time.

The County Archives receives over 650 reference requests per month, often from people searching for property history. Genealogists also use archival County records in their research.  Shenk said there are a lot of ways records tell a story. They answer questions and solve riddles. They fill in gaps in family trees. They help people understand where they come from.   But the primary function of the Archives is to document the history of County government, from providing services, to law enforcement, to managing natural resources and infrastructure.

With the breadth of material housed in the County Archives, one of the biggest challenges has been letting the public and County employees know what is in the collection and how it can help with research. In early 2015 Archives will launch an online catalog which will allow the public to search descriptions of the Archives’ records from home. Additionally, Archives launched a Pinterest page which can be found here and they create exhibits, posted on their Web site.

“We are also in the early phases of planning for a digital repository, for archival preservation of digital materials in all formats,” Shenk said.

Shenk’s job also requires her to review all records that reach disposition, the end of the record lifecycle, at which point they will either be destroyed or transferred to the Archives for posterity.    To promote government transparency, the state requires some documents to be preserved, and others are evaluated on a case by case basis.

“Many records are required to be preserved by law, and others I appraise.” Shenk said. “For example, with project files, I determine whether to preserve them or not by evaluating the project itself. I ask, was it innovative or did it have a significant impact? Did it result from a major policy change?”

By answering these questions, Shenk and all of King County Archives’ employees play a vital role in preserving King County’s history and making sure it is available for future generations to access and understand.

On Thursday, Oct. 30, King County Archives will be participating in #AskAnArchivist Day via Twitter.

This day-long event, sponsored by the Society of American Archivists, is a great opportunity to connect directly with archivists in your community and around the country to ask questions, get information, or just satisfy your curiosity. Follow @KingCoArchives on Twitter and use #AskAnArchivist to join in the fun.