Executive Director’s Letter

From the Executive Director features news and reflections on the work of PHMC by its chief administrator.

In January I enjoyed my first opportunity to spend several hours modestly researching at the Pennsylvania State Archives. I donned white cotton gloves and searched through many boxes of postcards looking for images that would reveal to our visitors the Commonwealth’s rich diversity with minimal need for words or labels. This collection, Manuscript Group 213, spanning from the 19th century to the present, is well used by researchers and historians because postcards graphically illustrate our state’s history. I had a great and productive morning, but I didn’t finish. I discovered the State Archives collections contain more than 22,000 postcard views of the Commonwealth. It’s obvious I’ll need to return to the Archives more than once.

I was reminded, also in January, of the remarkable range of records safeguarded by the State Archives. The staff to which these priceless holdings are entrusted displayed a dozen documents to illustrate the scope and breadth of the collections during an orientation tour for new staff members. The documents were extraordinary, ranging from a land writ signed by William Penn to telegrams from the gubernatorial records of Dick Thornburgh informing him of the terrifying 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. In between were fascinating examples of state records documenting three centuries of Pennsylvania history, including an Act of Assembly that authorized payment to Molly Pitcher for her services during the American Revolution and a “Receipt for Money Given to Molly Pitcher for her services.”

The volume of the material in the State Archives is amazing. State Archivist David A. Haury reports the holdings now total more than 200 million manuscript pages. The number continually grows as we process thousands of cartons of Commonwealth records each year. At the current growth rate the Archives will be out of storage space in just a few years.

Therefore, I am extremely pleased to report our Commissioners voted in December 2013 to proceed with our plans for a new archival facility. The new building will provide sufficient space for the continued growth of collections for many decades and will provide advanced, state-of-the-art technology for the storage and retrieval of digital records as well. The new archives will also offer for the first time the proper temperature and humidity controls, fire suppression system and security to assure the long-term preservation of our historical records.

Even as we plan for a new facility, we continue the process of making the most used records available online. During 2013 an employee of Ancestry.com digitized records onsite at the State Archives, including the recently conserved Civil War Muster Out Rolls. Ancestry.com has also nearly completed the scanning and is beginning the indexing of the more than seven million Pennsylvania death certificates from 1906 to 1963 which are currently available to the public. Soon the muster rolls and death certificates – together with many other records that have been scanned and indexed – will be available free of charge to Keystone State residents.

The muster out rolls and the birth and death records are much used by those of us who are interested in family history. So whether you access our records online or visit the State Archives to research, I want you to know PHMC is actively taking steps to better protect Pennsylvania’s historical treasures and to make them readily available to you.

James M. Vaughan
Executive Director, PHMC