11/22/13 – Favorite Reading Rooms: Archives II

November 22, 2013

Reading rooms are a funny thing. Some are quaint and a breeze to navigate. Others are a maze both in how records are organized and where you can find a seat. At a recent staff meeting, our researchers began talking about their favorite archives and reading rooms. We’ve researched in a range of places, including spider-ridden basements, corporate warehouses, and revered places like Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. While they all provide the meat of archival research, there are those special places that evoke a sense of place for the work that we do. With that in mind, we’ve decided to begin a blog series that highlights some of our favorite places to conduct research. Enjoy!

Archives II

A little over a year ago I had the opportunity to travel to College Park, Maryland, to conduct research at Archives II. College Park is a suburb of Washington, D.C., and when the National Archives’ downtown branch became too small, Congress appropriated money for this larger facility in D.C.’s hinterlands. After spending four days at the facility and scouring over countless boxes of records relating to the zinc industry during World War I, I became smitten with the Archives II Textual Reading Room. Those familiar with the facility might think it’s an unlikely choice. For me, going to College Park was an opportunity to explore a piece of my own family’s history. For me, researching at Archives II was like a homecoming.

Entrance to the National Archives in College Park, MD (source).

Entrance to the National Archives in College Park, MD (source).

In 1971, my father arrived in College Park after growing up in British Columbia, Canada. My father’s time in Maryland allowed for exploration around Washington D.C., which in turn cemented his love of American history, something he would later pass on to me. It would take a number of years, a different Washington (the state) and the inspiration from a naturalized U.S. citizen (my mother) for my father to become a U.S. citizen. The opportunity to see the area that was so inspiring to my father excited me. The discovery that Archives II was built during my lifetime, however, was disappointing; I had envisioned researching in a beautifully preserved historic building that my dad might have passed by on occasion, not in one that had opened its doors so recently. The revelation prompted immediate research into the history of facility.

My investigation into Archives II proved illuminating. While the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) didn’t complete construction on Archives II until 1993, its history stretched back much farther. Completed in 1935, the historic NARA Archives I building on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. reached its storage capacity after only 35 years of operation. As a way to alleviate the mounting paperwork to which our country’s various agencies contributed daily, documents were rerouted to the Washington National Records Center in Suitland, Maryland, and to a building leased by the federal government in Alexandria, Virginia. As might be expected, these facilities did not meet the expectations outlined for the storage of archival records. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that a home for thousands of orphaned documents was realized when the University of Maryland agreed to donate 33 acres of land for a new archival building. At long last, on September 22, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the public law which authorized NARA to construct Archives II. Five years later, Archives II opened its doors.

The National Archives at College Park, MD (source).

The National Archives at College Park, MD (source).

Today Archives II houses a wide variety of archival material including manuscript collections, photographs, maps, drawings, and films. The Textual Reading Room on the second floor boasts floor to ceiling windows which not only provide a beautiful view of lush green trees but also ample natural light, a rare commodity in archives. The use of space in the reading room is equally impressive. Clusters of four-person work stations dot the room’s floor, which makes navigating a cart of 20 plus boxes an adventure filled with interactions with fellow researchers. At the conclusion of my four-day research trip, I found it equally humbling and exciting to witness Archives II’s vast reading room full of researchers digging into the country’s historical record.

The Textual Reading Room, National Archives, College Park, MD (source).

The Textual Reading Room, National Archives, College Park, MD (source).

For myriad reasons, Archives II evokes a personal sense of place for me. Perhaps most importantly, just like Archives II, I am a product of the amazing growth of the United States has witnessed over the past hundred years. While my history in the States is a young one, Archives II proves that I can get my hands dusty digging into a past that is much older.

- Stephanie Milne-Lane

4/26/12: Electronic Records in the National Archives

April 26, 2012

My associate and I just returned from a week in the Washington, D.C. area doing research in the records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. The sheer volume of material that was relevant to the subject of our research was astounding. Back in the day when carbon paper was used, agency staff made multiple copies of each document and mailed them to every single office that might have some interest in the issue. In addition, government agency filing systems were such that some memos applied to multiple subject areas, and were copied for each of those area files, as well. Consequently, the silver bullet letter you might find on day 2 of your research ceases to be quite as exciting when you see it for the 3rd, 4th or 5th time in what might be the 25th box you’ve examined! Nevertheless, the duplication of records made me ponder today’s modern archival problem: the lack of duplication. I know that there are archivists at the national level (and probably some at the state level) that have devised policies for archiving email communications, but I wonder about future historians who will undoubtedly see a major gap in communication during the period when emails weren’t kept or recorded. I am certain that a large amount of information was left uncaptured during the early days of electronic communications (and probably still today), and can’t help but be concerned over what this will mean to the historians of the 1990s.

As summer approaches, SHRA is planning a number of research trips, and I intend to do an informal survey of how archivists are handling this modern problem. We will be in facilities ranging from regional branches of the National Archives to state historical societies and university archives. I’ll plan to report back on this point once I hear what these facilities are doing about this challenge.

8/11/2011 Local Water Organizations Hosting October 18 Conference on Boise River

August 11, 2011

Boise-area residents value and love the Boise River for its proximity to downtown, the recreational opportunities it offers, and the water it provides for local farmers.  But the Boise River is not the same river it once was.  The meandering series of shallow channels that criss-crossed the valley floor in the late 19th century has been replaced with a far more defined river channel bordered by residential and other urban uses.  The Boise River now receives storm run-off containing pollutants which people in the 1890s could not have imagined.  The local irrigation districts have to contend with keeping the water clean in their canals, as well, faced with runoff from the fertilizers used on their members’ fields.  And, the specter of climate change has rendered all users uncertain of their water supply’s future.  This messy set of concerns only begins to describe the complex web of issues related to Boise River management.  (If you examine this historic video narrated by former Boise City Council member Bill Onweiler you will get a sense of the River’s history and its significance to the City of Boise 1970: The Boise River Greenbelt.)

To encourage conversation and collaboration, a group of local organizations is hosting a series of Brown Bag lunches leading up to their October 18th conference on private and public opportunities for ecosystem restoration on the Lower Boise River.  SHRA is pleased to be a sponsor of these programs.

The Lower Boise River was the subject of a recent Feasibility Study by the Idaho Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  The Feasibility Study was aimed in part at evaluating potential sites for additional water storage infrastructure – i.e. dams.  Now, the group of local water leaders hosting this program series are going to talk about other opportunities which the river presents.  Participants include members of the non-profit community such as Idaho Rivers United, as well as members of the irrigation and scientist communities.  The series presents the opportunity for the myriad people and groups that use the Boise River to talk about and envision its future.  Please plan to come to the Brown Bag lunches and especially the event on October 18, which will feature a keynote address by Boise State University president Bob Kustra.

Click here for details on the Brown Bag Lunch series: Idaho Rivers United brownbagflyer

Click here for information on the October 18 Vision to Reality workshop (more…)

7/26/2011 The Evolving Historical Profession

July 26, 2011

The NY Times printed an article today (7/26/2011) about how Geographic Information Systems have helped historians “see” the past in more unique and arguably more accurate ways.


Although the article does not specifically discuss SHRA’s specialty – environmental history — the use of Geographic Information Systems, or GIS, represents a major leap forward in the search for historical accuracy in this field.  SHRA’s clients often utilize GIS consultants to provide visual representations of the area in question.  Their maps are incredibly helpful to our historians when reading primary sources such as General Land Office field notes and survey plats or even simple historical maps.  GIS maps help us to understand historical changes in stream beds, watercourses, and any other physical changes in the land such as tree coverage or accumulation of mining waste.  We have worked with many of these GIS firms over the past eight or so years to create our own maps, as well, showing changes in land ownership over time, road locations and changes over time, and any other number of important historical events.  GIS is an incredible tool in legal settings where visual representation can help tell a story to opposing lawyers or to a judge who may have stacks of paper to read but for whom “a picture tells a thousand words.”  That one perfect map — done in consultation with a GIS expert – can make your case.


12/10/2010 SHRA in The Advocate

December 10, 2010

SHRA client Moffatt Thomas recently used the information in a report prepared by our firm for an article in the Idaho Bar Association’s newsletter.  Attorney Scott Campbell cited the SHRA report in his article, “Irrigation Water Drainage Development in the Treasure Valley.” History of Irrigation and Drainage in the Treasure Valley

The report, entitled, A History of The Pioneer Irrigation District, 1884-1938, An Initial Report, was written for the purposes of litigation between Pioneer and the City of Caldwell.  We conducted research in the National Archives in Denver to obtain much of the information on which this report was based.  The Denver (Rocky Mountain) branch of the National Archives holds the records of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.  We also did research locally at both the Idaho State Archives and various irrigation districts in the valley.

The history of Pioneer Irrigation District represents the history of irrigation and settlement in the West during the 19th and early 20th centuries.  The pioneers who settled the lands were brave souls who had visions of bounty where only sagebrush and rattlesnakes existed.  The story of Pioneer Irrigation District tells us of the entrepreneurs that created many of the towns in the western valley and who were almost single-handedly responsible for encouraging the migration.  It tells us of the coming of the railroad, and how critical the siting of the railroad was to the development of the West.  It tells us of the manipulation of resources to support human life, and the ingenuity of those who came.

Pioneer Irrigation District and Moffatt Thomas continue to be clients of SHRA.

11/12/2010 County Records and Haunted Hotels

November 12, 2010

I had occasion to be in Baker City, Oregon last week on a research trip.  The city itself has made a concerted effort to preserve its historic architecture, and the small downtown is charming.  City Hall is a beautiful turn-of-the-century (20th) quintessential stone hall with a clock tower, and there are many National Register plaques gracing other buildings, as well. I even was treated to staying at the 100+ year old Geiser Grand Hotel, which is rumored to be haunted.  Fortunately I am not able to confirm that point one way or the other…

What really struck me during my time in Baker, however, was how incredibly well-preserved the Baker County records were.  My colleagues and I do a lot of historic research in County Courthouses across the West.  County records are vitally important to environmental research in the West.  An incredible amount of stuff happened at the county level in the 19th century.  Mining claims were filed at the county, water claims were filed at the county, roads were built with county money, and many, many other things.  But unfortunately, many states have done a poor job at preserving these records.  Oregon is an outstanding exception to the rule.

I originally discovered the wealth of county material through the Oregon State Archives web site, which does a fine job of making the records searchable.  I then discovered that much of the archival material was actually kept at the county courthouses around the state instead of at the State Archives in Salem.  That discouraged me because of my long experience in other courthouses which are disorganized, unkempt, and easily compromised.  That was until I actually arrived at the Baker County Courthouse.  The two vaults where the records were kept were immaculate and incredibly well-organized.  I had a finding aid from a few years back, but when I arrived I was told that the Oregon State Archives staff had just been there to do an audit, and that there was an updated finding aid.  What state spends money on these things anymore?  None I had been to recently, that’s for sure!  But Oregon has done its citizens a huge favor by keeping these records accessible and easily searchable.  Having these records so accessible to researchers like me and other SHRA historians will go a long way toward helping judges and lawyers sort out the difficult answers that lie in the past, and I firmly believe that it will save the state a great deal of money in the long run.  So hats off to Oregon for keeping a budget alive for archives in these difficult times!  I look forward to going back and examining in more detail the county surveyor books, court records, and water rights filings and knowing exactly where to find it all!

9/3/2010: The Mining Law of 1866

September 3, 2010

SHRA has spent quite a lot of time in recent months doing work related to the 1866 Mining or Right of Way Act.  Among many other things, the law provides perpetual ROWs for uses that existed on public land at the time the land was withdrawn from the public domain.  There is a provision of the law that relates to roads, and another that relates to irrigation ditches.  The historical questions and policy implications of this law are significant.

In the West today, there are myriad groups fighting over these historic uses, which the federal government is in many cases trying to curb or eliminate (think of the “roadless” debates that have occurred over the past two decades).  As far as SHRA’s involvement, our historians have recently been researching the history of roads in national forests and the history of irrigation ditches in designated wilderness areas. In each case, the historical question is when the road or the ditch actually came into existence — was it before or after the government designated the land as a national forest and withdrew it from the public domain?  Sounds simple, but of course historical research never is!

The research has taken place in many locations and various archives, making these particularly interesting cases.  We have found rich sources in the Bureau of Land Management archives, the Forest Service archives, and most interestingly, in local archives.  Just yesterday, I uncovered 3 old photo albums that a 1920s mother made for her son.  They had wonderful, old photos of the first airplane  — called the “Tin Goose” — to land on one particular backcountry wilderness landing strip in the 1920s.  The albums also showed an old miner holding up a gold bullion cube and packing the rest of those nuggets out with his snow dogs.  In addition, the photos showed a well-known lake filled almost entirely with logs from the old logging days.  We also found old surveys and hand-written notes from the road engineer describing how difficult it had become to design a road up one particular summit, particularly when there was sometimes 12 feet of snow!

These cases have been some of the most interesting for our historians, due in part to the picture we’re getting to paint of settlement and life in these very remote areas of the West.  We’ve all read books on the West, but when you read the documents written by the people who were living on the ground and see the photos they took, you can almost feel what it was like for them, and how harsh life really was on a daily basis.  The number of these cases in which SHRA is involved is growing rapidly, as this important law becomes a more widely used tool to protect old and historic uses on national lands.  Professional historical research has been absolutely critical to our clients because of the important role that the historical facts play in these cases.  We can only hope that they’re all as interesting as these have been!

7/26/2010 SHRA working to complete Boise’s new Historic Preservation Plan

July 27, 2010

SHRA is putting the finishing touches on Boise’s new Historic Preservation Plan.  The plan has not been updated since it was first written in 1979.  Much has happened since that time, and society values historic properties differently now than it did then.  Many things had to be addressed in this plan, including how to merge the City’s environmental stewardship goals with its historic preservation goals.  Sometimes, the two seem to be at odds, and this plan was geared toward addressing this conflict.  The plan also addresses Boise’s stock of mid-century architecture.  In addition, the new plan covers the history of historic preservation in Boise and all of the past accomplishments of the City’s Historic Preservation Commission.  It also suggests policies that will reduce the waste stream from demolition and remodels of historic homes, and innovative plans for the myriad historic preservation groups in the Boise area to work together.  The plan will undergo some revision before it heads to public hearing sometime this fall.

6/17/10: Writing Boise’s new Historic Preservation Plan

June 17, 2010

We spent this past week drafting an almost complete version of Boise City’s new Historic Preservation Plan.  The Plan has not been updated since it was first written in 1979, and so much has changed since then!  The City has made so much progress toward preserving Boise’s heritage, but so many structures and sites remained threatened.  And, in modern times, an additional consideration is how to deal with “green” updates in historic districts.  SHRA is working on integrating the City’s goals of Environmental Stewardship with its historic preservation goals, recognizing that the two are often complementary.  The plan will be completely drafted in early July, and will be heading to public comment this fall.

6/2/2010: Why Can’t I Find That on the Internet?

June 2, 2010

In the year 2010, people often think that there is little they can’t find on the Internet or through various electronic databases.  In fact, there is so much information available today that often the problem is not how to find it, but how to limit it.  With regard to litigation, most paralegals can come up with a specific historical document if their attorney tells them specifically what they need and if it is available at a County Courthouse or another local source.

But unlike legal research, thorough and professional archival research is the skill of trained historians.  Often, the documents they uncover can mean the difference between winning or losing a case.  When it comes to litigating an access case or any other type of environmental dispute, there are often hundreds of documents out there that are extremely useful for proving your case, but which are only available through archival research.

Electronic resources will never catch up with the volume of historical documentation from America’s 230-year history.  There is, quite simply, too much.  Even if every document ever archived was scanned and available from the convenience of a computer screen, the very nature of archival research simply does not lend itself to being conducted in this way.  Therefore, the deployment of a professional historian to help you discover these documents can provide an efficient means of uncovering these materials.

Archival facilities come in all shapes and sizes.  The National Archives are the largest in the United States and house the federal government’s massive collection of records.  The National Archives maintains numerous branches across the county, with holdings that date back to the colonial era.  The various branches of the National Archives contain holdings relevant to their specific region.  Branches include:

While the National Archives has tried to maintain some consistency with regard to agency record organization, each record group (as a set of agency holdings is called) is unique.  For instance, in contrast to the organization of the Fish and Wildlife Service records (Record Group 22), the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation records (Record Group 115) are almost entirely housed at the regional branch in Denver.  Presumably, the logic is that since the Bureau operates entirely in the western states, researchers interested in this agency would also be located in the West.

Regardless of the record group in question, historians are trained to navigate the maze of records.  Although expert researchers can navigate through most any archival facility or manuscript collection, they often develop expertise in various record groups based on their academic interests or their clients’ needs.

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