Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

The challenges of keeping up with life’s paperwork are overwhelming. There are so many documents: receipts, tax forms, deeds, wills, insurance policies and claims, pay stubs, check registers, warranties…a neverending stream of information that has to be handled. And for each slip of paper, there’s a set of questions that must be answered. What to keep? How to file? Where to store? For how long? How to retrieve? Anyone who has ever rummaged through a desk drawer or a file cabinet looking for an important document that “must be here somewhere!” – and who hasn’t? – should be in awe of what the Pennsylvania State Archives does on a Commonwealth-wide basis.

The State Archives, administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC), is the official custodian of the records of all three branches of state government and its political subdivisions and serves as a repository for papers and records of individuals, families, businesses, and organizations that possess statewide historical significance. This collection of one hundred and sixty-five million pages of documents, seventeen thousand reels of microfilm, and one million special collection items, including photographs, maps and blueprints, motion picture rolls, and audio and video tapes, nearly fills the twenty-story Archives Tower.

By dint of sound planning, superior organizational skills, and an unwavering commitment to its mission, the State Archives staff preserves a wealth of information about Pennsylvanians and their communities for use by scholars, historians, genealogists, legislators, and the public. A proactive approach for handling diverse technology and an ever-growing amount of materials means that the State Archives has positioned itself to continue serving the citizens of the Commonwealth in the twenty-first century.

Historian and archival theorist Waldo Gifford Leland (1879-1966) noted, “The chief monument of the history of a nation is its archives, the preservation of which is recognized in all civilized countries as a natural and proper function of government.” Governments and nations have long known the value of the records they create, and the importance of maintaining them, believes Frank M. Suran, state archivist and director of the PHMC’s Bureau of Archives and History. “We can trace this back more than five thousand years to the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia, where the growth in trade and the rise of cities necessitated the creation and storage of business and property records,” he says. “Records were not kept for cultural purposes, but because they documented ownership of property and the transaction of business they had long-term legal and fiscal significance.”

Inexplicably, however, this country’s federal and state governments were slow to establish official archives. The first state archives was founded in the 1890s; the National Archives was not created until 1934. The Pennsylvania State Archives was established in 1903 as the Division of Public Records within the State Library, but it was combined in 1945 with the State Museum and the Pennsylvania Historical Commission to create the PHMC.

The original placement of the Archives in the State Library, the same arrangement used by many other states, was just an administrative convenience, but it reinforced a blurring – in the minds of the general public – of the functions of books and of “archival materials,” a term just coming into use. Harry F. Parker, chief of the PHMC’s Division of Archives and Manuscripts, explains the distinction: “Libraries have discrete items that are not unique. We have unique items that are not always discrete.” For instance, a library would have a copy of a book, one of many published items, while archivists accession series of unpublished documents that are unique in that they are the actual working files of an office or organization. The holdings of a library are the products of intellectual activity intended for broad cultural purposes, whereas the “records” maintained by archives are the products of the business activity of an institution or organization.

“The records we keep were consciously created by a government agency in the course of doing business. They provide an official record of how each department did its job,” says Suran. “Whenever possible, we maintain them in the exact same order and filing arrangement as they were created in the originating office. We keep the files in their original filing system so historians and researchers can understand how agency staff responded to their assignments. Destroy or lose that order and it becomes impossible to study and understand an agency’s reaction to a major issue.

“Every time a record is lost or destroyed,” S continues, “we lose a part of the real story-a part of history. Reading the correspondence, reports and records created at the actual time of an event helps us to determine what actually happened.” For example, a scholar researching the hanging of Jack Kehoe, leader of the Molly Maguires, was better able to determine the thinking and motives of Governor John Frederick Hartranft in deciding whether to grant a pardon to Kehoe because he had access to recently acquired correspondence between the governor and his attorney general discussing the possibility of clemency.

Paper doesn’t last forever, and so the State Archives takes special precautions to stall its degradation. The temperature in the Archives Tower is maintained at sixty-eight degrees Fahrenheit and humidity is kept at forty-five to fifty percent. Records are stored in acid-free folders and boxes. “Light is the enemy of paper,” says Suran. Therefore, the stack areas of the Tower are windowless, and artificial light is used only when retrieving records for use in the Archives search room.

“The single greatest danger to the preservation of records is people,” adds Harry Parker, referring not only to the oils in human fingertips and to the occasional miscreant intent on thievery, but also to something seemingly innocuous yet potentially devastating: the human propensity to toss things into the wastebasket or, more often, to simply neglect and eventually lose records. A crucial part of the Archives’ responsibility is appraisal and education-in other words, helping state and local government agencies to determine which documents get destroyed, and which need to be maintained because they have continuing administrative, fiscal, or legal value, or possess historical significance. The Archives staff either prepare or assist government agencies in preparing records retention and disposition schedules that provide records officers with a list of all records actually created and filed and how long they should be kept.

What is the continuing value, one might ask, of massive collections and series of records of routine entries-minutiae of long-forgotten accounts and minor events? Why save them? A famous authority on archives, Theodore R. Schellenberg, defended such records when he said that the materials could be both “evidential” and “informational.” Evidential value is the capacity of documents to show the work duties of the particular office or institution that produced those documents. Information value exists when researchers are able to use the documents to prove matters beyond the duties of the office or institution. For example, the fact that John Doe was one of thousands who paid a few cents in excise tax on a particular day in the nineteenth century says little, by itself, about the taxing agency, although a large number of similar tax payments proves that the agency performed its function. But to a Doe descendant the single entry for John’s tax payment may be very valuable genealogical information.

Frank Suran, who has been on staff at the State Archives for more than thirty years, especially likes the outreach aspect of his work. “One of the most enjoyable parts of the job is having the pleasure of working with all kinds of government records-keepers and officials-prothonotaries (civil court clerks), judges, borough managers, heads of state departments, boards and divisions, recorders of deeds, and county commissioners, to name a few,” he says. “They depend on us for advice. We also help local governments run their own archives and records management programs. It’s nice to meet a wide variety of officeholders from large and small municipalities all over the state. We also sponsor seminars and public programs as part of our work with universities, historical societies, genealogical associations, and any private group interested in preserving and making available the Commonwealth’s documentary heritage.”

Currently, the Archives’ staff is developing a course on the proper disposition of records maintained on government personal computers. Staff members are planning to initiate a training session on disaster recovery and the protection of vital records. Long-term, the State Archives is working with public and private repositories and various interest groups to formulate a ten-year strategic plan to preserve the Commonwealth’s documentary legacy.

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission works through two divisions of the Bureau of Archives and History to meet its archival and records management responsibilities for all three branches of state government and more than five thousand local governments. The Division of Archives and Manuscripts is responsible for preserving, publicizing, and making available historical records at the Archives’ search room and responding to inquiries about its holdings. The Division of Archival and Records Management Services is responsible for appraising and scheduling records on all levels of government and helping government officers meet their responsibilities for creating and maintaining records.

“We accession fifteen hundred to twenty-five hundred boxes of agency records a year,” Suran says. “We are even busier when there is a change in administration since the governor’s official records usually amount to a transfer of five hundred to six hundred boxes for each four years in office. Records that come to the Archives don’t have to be old, as long as they are of long-term value and are no longer needed to transact business.”

Technology is both a boon and a complication. Yes, computer records require less storage space than paper. On the other hand, constantly changing hardware and software make it almost impossible to have the “right” machines and programs to access these computer files; equipment becomes obsolete quickly. “The state has been creating machine-readable records since the 1950s,” says Harry Parker. “We would have to be a computer museum to be able to read everything created by the different agencies.” Another hazard that rises as the shift from paper to electronic record-keeping accelerates is the ease with which information may be inappropriately deleted. With a few unintentional keystrokes, vital information can be obliterated – permanently.

As more and more agencies and institutions migrate their records from traditional paper to electronic records-keeping systems, the State Archives is focusing on acquiring the expertise, authority, and technology to guarantee both the readability and retrievability of historically valuable electronic information in spite of rapid changes in hardware and software. Archives have long been concerned with the survival of information with long-term value, the continuing availability of this and the cost of maintaining records over time. However, hardware – and software – dependent electronic records pose a far different and greater challenge to archivists than ever posed by records on clay tablets, papyrus, paper, and microfilm.

To those who use the State Archives, format is less important than content. Last year more than five thousand people visited the Archives’ search room. In addition, the staff fielded eighty-seven hundred telephone and mail inquiries from researchers all over the world, while responding to seven thousand requests for professional and technical assistance from hundreds of state and local officials relating to the preservation and eventual transfer of public records in their care. “Every day it’s a new and different situation,” Parker says. “Everybody who walks in here has a potentially interesting event or question that they are researching. It’s exciting to hear their questions and help them find the information they need.”

About eighty percent of the visitors who research at the State Archives, located at Third and Forster Streets in Harrisburg, are chiefly interested in genealogy and community history. The balance consists primarily of academics, students, writers, people seeking support for claims to government benefits, legislators, and individuals interested in specific topics such as the Civil War, railroading, or black history.

It’s electrifying to discover some of the documents and memorabilia contained in the Archives. Covering the period from 1664 to the present, more than seventy records groups offer a window back in time. Genealogical records, including passenger lists, oaths of allegiance, deeds, estate papers, and military service records are on file. Records of the colonial, revolutionary, and Commonwealth governments are stored here, beginning with the original 1681 Charter from King Charles II to William Penn, hand-decorated with iron gall ink on animal skin (see “Preserving This Venerable Document” by Linda A. Ries and Jane Smith Stewart, Winter 2000). Patent books, Native American deeds, physicians’ licenses, World War II bonus files, minutes of the Board of Canal commissioners, Chambersburg Civil War damage claims, epidemic reports, governors’ papers, and corporate charter books are just a few of the thousands of records series that help document the administration of government functions over three centuries.

Although the majority of the records at the Pennsylvania State Archives were created by agencies of state government, they are complemented by personal papers, manuscripts, and non-governmental records maintained because of their historical value. While governmental records are maintained and described by a “Record Group,” or “RG,” title corresponding to the name of the agency of origin, family papers, business archives, and special media collections are maintained and described as “Manuscript Groups,” or “MGs.” Papers of political figures and business corporation records are well represented in the manuscript groups, as well as important documentation of other areas of human experience. Manuscript groups are especially rich in photography and map collections. Some groups are named for individuals, families, or others who collected and contributed the items. The Penn Central Railroad Collection and Deposit is the largest manuscript group. It is often referred to as the “Pennsylvania Railroad Collection” because that is its largest component. The State Archives is one of several major repositories holding part of the records of this enormous corporation.

Because of the unique and precious nature of the Archives’ holdings, stringent security rules apply for anyone using the search room. After filling out a registration form, all bags, parcels, briefcases, and outerwear must be placed in a locker. Each visitor may bring in only one notebook or folder, which must be surrendered to the Search Room attendant when original manuscripts are being used. The staff attendant may supply lined paper, note cards, and pencils. Individuals using original records in the search room are taped by security cameras. The ratio of customers to staff is never more than four to one. When a manuscript is requested, a staff member retrieves it (patrons are not allowed beyond the search room), which illustrates another way Archives differ from libraries where stacks are open to the public. Notes are inspected before they can be removed from the search room. Of course, no manuscripts may be removed.

As one would expect, storage space is an ongoing concern. At its inception in 1903, the Archives was housed in the State Library and Executive Building, now the Speaker Matthew J. Ryan Building. The entire archival program was allotted some seventeen hundred and fifty square feet in the building’s basement. It moved, along with the State Library, to the Education Building in 1931. In 1965, the Archives found adequate space in the William Penn Memorial Museum and Archives Building.

“Since the Tower is almost filled to its seventy-five thousand cubic feet capacity with government archives and personal papers, we must convert ground floor space for records storage,” says Suran. “We need to find space to store thirty-five thousand cubic feet of records on the ground floor, which should hold us for the next twenty years.” Renovation of The William Penn Memorial Museum and Archives Building, improvements to the existing State Records Center Building, the construction of a State Records Center Annex, and the allocation of significant space in the Keystone Building, now u construction, should east the space crunch A short-term project of removing library shelving and adding more space-efficient records center shelving to the Archives Tower will provide an additional eighty-five hundred cubic feet of storage capacity in the Tower. Renovations in the Archives will accelerate after several PHMC divisions move to the completed Keystone Building in summer.

Plans for the redesign of the State Archives call for an exhibit area and orientation room. This will allow some of the special and beautiful items housed in the Archives to be displayed on a rotating basis. Perhaps these might include colored-pencil drawings of the state’s canal system dating to the 1820s, seventeenth-century Indian deeds, or architectural renderings of buildings in the Capitol Complex. The lobby will feature patron computer terminals and workstations to facilitate access to the State Archives’ finding aids, records on CD-ROM, the Archives’ components of the PHMC’s Web site, as well as the electronic information resources of other state agencies. A special room to allow access to audio/visual records is also planned.

With room to breathe, and an upgrade in technology, the Pennsylvania State Archives will continue to meet its mandate to acquire, preserve, and make accessible the permanently valuable paper, films, and electronic media-based records of the Commonwealth in a cost-effective manner. In doing so, it will enable state government to meet its basic responsibility to safeguard and document the civic and property rights of its citizens while preserving an accurate record of the performance of its officials.

The Pennsylvania State Archives, located at Third and Forster Streets in Harrisburg, is open to the public for research Tuesday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.; Saturday, for microfilm use only, 9:00 a.m. to noon, and 1:00 to 4:00 p.m. (except state and legal holidays). For information, write: Pennsylvania State Archives, 350 North Street, Harrisburg, PA, 17120-0090; telephone (717) 783-3281; or visit the Pennsylvania State Archives website.

Persons with disabilities who need special assistance or accommodation should call the State Archives in advance to discuss their needs. Persons who are deaf, hard of hearing, or speech impaired who wish to contact a hearing person via Text Telephone may use the PA Relay Center at 1-800-654-5984.

The capital city abounds with attractions for individuals interested in history and culture. Adjacent to the Pennsylvania State Archives, The State Museum of Pennsylvania showcases the Commonwealth’s past through four floors of exciting exhibits, dioramas, installations, and inter-active galleries (see “Preserving the Past, Protecting the Future: The State Museum of Pennsylvania,” by Sharon Hernes Silverman, Winter 2000). The State Capitol, featuring original works of art by Violet Oakley, Edward Austin Abbey, George Grey Barnard, and Henry Chapman Mercer, is one of the most beautiful state houses in the country. Other popular area attractions include the John Harris-Simon Cameron Mansion, Fort Hunter Mansion and Park, the Fire Museum of Greater Harrisburg, the Art Association of Harrisburg, the Hershey Museum, Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts, and the National Civil War Museum.

For more information, write: Hershey Harrisburg Regional Visitors Bureau, 112 Market St, fourth floor, Harrisburg, PA 17101; telephone (717) 231-7788 or toll-free 1-800-995- 0969; or visit the Hershey Harrisburg Regional Visitors Bureau website.


For Further Reading

Carmicheal, David. Organizing Archival Records: A Practical Method of Arrange­ment and Description for Small Archives. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1993.

Dructor, Robert M. Guide to Genealogical Sources at the Pennsylvania State Archives. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1997.

Munger, Donna Bingham. Pennsylvania Land Records: A History and Guide for Research. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 1991.

Nichols, Roy F. The Pennsylva­nia Historical and Museum Commission: A History. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commis­sion, 1967.

O’Too1e, James M. Understanding Archives and Manuscripts. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 1990.

Ries, Linda A. Guide to Photographs at the Pennsylvania State Archives. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1993.


For their invaluable assistance, the author thanks Frank M. Suran, director of the Bureau of Archives and History, and Harold F. Parker, chief of the Division of Archives and Manuscripts.


Sharon Hernes Silverman of West Chester, Chester County, is a regular contributor to Pennsylvania Heritage. Her most recent feature, “Preserving the Past, Protecting the Future: The State Museum of Pennsylva­nia,” appeared in the Winter 2000 issue.