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

2003 marks the centennial of the Pennsylvania State Archives, the oldest component of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC), the Commonwealth’s official history agency, and State Archivist Frank M. Suran knows its history bet­ter than anyone else.

An archivist’s responsibilities include a multitude of tasks. Suran discusses his beginnings at the State Archives, organizing collections for research use, and even digging historical records out of the mud following Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972. For many years, Suran was specifically responsible for the programs relating to the records of county and municipal governments. He reflects on the importance of these records for Pennsylvania history and the variety of ways the State Archives has helped to preserve them.

Since 1995, Suran has served as direc­tor of the PHMC’s Bureau of Archives and History. Besides responsibility for a variety of public history activities including publications, conferences, and historical markers, he oversees historical records generated by both state and local governments, as well as large collections of documents created by businesses, organizations, and individuals and families. Housed in a twenty-story tower in downtown Harrisburg, just opposite the State Capitol, these collections number more than one hundred and nine­ty-five million page of documents, and include maps, blueprints, photographs, audio-visual materials, forty million images of historical records on micro­film, and even electronic record on tapes, discs, and CD-ROMs. While the State Archives’s role in making records available for research is the most obvious part of the work, it also provide a wide variety of service to government offices to ensure that records are properly created, inventoried, and maintained.

One of the most important functions of the Pennsylvania State Archives is the identification and appraisal of records being created on all levels and in all branches of state government to determine if they should be preserved permanently. While nearly two hundred million pages seems like an incredible amount of paper, the State Archives actually preserves only a small fraction of all the records government generates – less than five percent! Suran has seen many changes at the State Archives, and he describes how he and his colleagues have used grant and partnerships to initiate new programs when state appropriations were not available. Probably the greatest change has been the introduction of computers, indispensable for managing the State Archives, including databases listing the contents of collections and the Web for displaying them.

At the same time, however, the burgeoning use of computers by government offices means that the records that are produced now are far more difficult to preserve for the future. The Pennsylvania Stat Archive maintains record that safeguard the civic and property rights of Pennsylva­nians; holds government agencies and officials accountable; preserves the historical record of the Commonwealth; and now depends on digital file that “live” on hardware and fre­­quently changing software. Figuring out how to capture digital records from thousand of computers and move them to the archives for preservation and future access is the challenge for the Pennsylvania State Archives in the twenty-first century.

This interview was conducted on Thursday, January 23, 2003, at the Pennsylvania State Archives in observance of the centennial of its founding in 1903.

 

How did you get started in archival work?

I was always interested in history. As a kid, instead of reading novels or other nonfiction, I read a lot of history. I received my undergraduate degree in history from St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, and then my master’s at University of Scranton. Beginning in 1968, I taught for a year at Notre Dame High School in Green Pond, near Easton, Pennsylvania. While there, I started sending out applications for historian positions.

It had to be something to do with his­torical research?

Yes. I did get a job with the Division of Naval History in Washington, D.C., and worked on a project on the Ameri­can Naval Fighting Ships. It was at that time that I received an announcement from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission for an archivist opening. I went up to Harrisburg for the interview, partly because it was closer to my hometown of Frackville, Schuylkill County.

Who did you interview with at that time?

I met with Bill [William J.] Wewer, who was at that time the deputy execu­tive director of the Commission under S. K. Stevens. Wewer was originally from Ashland, which is only a few miles from Frackville, so he immediately took an interest in me. Bill Work was in charge of the Archives at that time. I also had an interview with him. I think there were actually very few people on the Civil Service list who wanted to become archivists. In fact, I was number one, of one, on the list! I started here in January 1969.

Who else was in the division at that time?

The major figure for me was Martha Simonetti. She was responsible for train­ing new staff members. There really wasn’t a hierarchy except for Mr. Work being the division chief. In many instances we reported to Miss Simonetti or one of the other senior staff. I initially worked on some large projects under the direction of Harry E. Whipkey, who would eventually become division chief and bureau director. I helped him with a large collection of records we received from the Lebanon County Historical Society, most of which related to the Coleman family and to the Cornwall iron ore banks and furnaces. I think we worked for about a year trying to get that in order. It is really a testa­ment to the times in that we had the lux­ury of working continuously on that. It would never happen today that two peo­ple could work with very little interruption on such a lengthy project. We are just involved in so many things today.

What does that say about the use of the Archives at that time?

A lot of the activities of the old Divi­sion of Public Records prior to the 1950s centered on completing the published Pennsylvania Archives project and other projects not requiring the accessioning of historical records. It’s not fair to imply that they totally neglected the archival record; in the first forty or fifty years, people were in charge of the Archives were working without adequate facilities. The Archives started out in what used to be the State Library [built 1894] – it has had various names and is the Speaker Matthew J. Ryan Legislative Office Building today. The Archives had one room in the basement. In 1931, when the new Education and Forum Building was opened, they moved into three rooms. You really can’t run an archives program with that little space.

In the fifties and the early sixties, the staff redid the work of earlier archivists to restore the records to their proper provenance, to make sure people could study them by their agency of origin and their function. The construction of the new William Penn Museum and Archives Building was crucial and the space it provided was central to the establishment of a complete archives program.

What kind of person was Martha Simonetti?

She was the key figure in the formative period of the Archives. Martha did most of the inventories of the Historical and Museum Commission records. Only recently have we been able to input most of those listings and we hope this anniversary year to have all of the list­ings, folder by folder, of hundreds of boxes of the Commission’s own records up on our website.

How large was the staff when you were hired?

In 1969, I believe we had eight archivists and eight clerical and support staff members. Today we have twenty­-five people on staff, of whom twenty are archivists.

You mentioned former State Archivist Harry E. Whipkey, whom I sense was a mentor for you.

Harry was certainly a major influence on me and many staff members. He served as division chief and bureau director from 1972 to 1994, a period of major changes and great expansion.

The Pennsylvania State Archives moved into the present building in late 1964 and early 1965. Can you talk about its significance?

The opening of the Archives wing of the spacious William Penn Memorial Museum and Archives Building in the late sixties was a huge factor in the development and upgrade of the Com­monwealth’s ability to offer a more effective archival program. Prior to this, the Archives could only store about five thousand cubic feet of records. Now it had space for eighty thousand cubic feet! Public space, including the research room, along with areas for staff to process records, was increased dramatically. The increase in space allowed the staff to really become a full-service archives over time.

Were any other factors critical to the development and future success of the program?

There were five other events or changes that stick out in my mind. First was the passage of the County and Municipal Records Act in 1963 and 1968, which forced the Commission to become involved in local government records by giving it specific, defined responsibilities. Another was the formation of a national association of state archivists in 1974, now known as the National Asso­ciation of Government Archives and Records Administrators [NAGARA] whose annual programs and multi-state or national projects profoundly influ­enced staff and priorities. Third was the creation of the National Historical Publi­cations and Records Commission [NHPRC] and its records program in 1976. The grant funds received from NHPRC, which is the granting arm of the National Archives, is directly respon­sible for the success of our local records services and the Commission’s efforts to provide leadership, as well as training opportunities, to public and private historical records repositories in the state.

Finally, the transfer of the Bureau of Land Records from the state Department of Community Affairs in 1981 and the transfer of the executive branch records program, including operation of the State Records Center in 1992, had a major impact on involving the State Archives in the entire life cycle of records, bringing it into an active partnership with the Secre­tary of Administration and efforts to minimize the cost of managing all the Commonwealth’s information resources.

The State Archives gradually began reaching out to historical organizations, cultural institutions, and archival depositories around the Commonwealth. I especially remember a photograph of you and Harry Whipkey help­ing to dry out records in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972.

The Wyoming Historical and Geological Society [recently renamed the Luzerne County Historical Society] had great collections of manuscripts relating to the Wyoming Valley area. They were in downtown Wilkes-Barre, about two blocks from the Susquehanna River. They just couldn’t get them out in time and a large amount of records were trapped in the basement. A lot of the shelving had collapsed and there were manuscript volumes on the floor covered in mud. Over the course of several weeks my job was to pull materials out and deliver them to a cold storage locker in Reading to prevent further deterioration to the documents. I remember the stench was awful. Eventually we used the Her­shey Estates hay dryers to dry them out. It was extremely labor intensive.

Disaster response and planning is cer­tainly part of a preservation program. Was the State Archives doing much in terms of preservation at that time?

No, not really. I don’t think anybody else was at that time, either. Today we have a disaster preparedness and vital records program. We have staff members that go out and give half-day seminars to local depositories and we have a tem­plate so that agencies and repositories can prepare their own individual disaster preparedness program.

What about the Three Mile Island [TMI] accident?

Besides scaring us? I believe by the time the accident at TMI occurred, we had already developed our program to store security microfilm copies of some of our records out in Butler County. They are in an underground records storage facility operated by Iron Mountain [an archival management firm]. Since TMI, we upgraded to a much larger storage facility there and we have made sure that we are never lax about moving materials out there.

Your external efforts extend to records of county and local governments?

When I think back to the seventies, our biggest archival shortcoming was the total neglect of local government records. Not long after I first came to the Archives, I was made responsible for providing staff support to the Common­wealth’s statewide local records commit­tees. Two acts in 1963 and 1968 created a County Records Committee and a Local Government Records Committee to over­see management of records maintained by some fifty-four hundred units of local government. We looked at those states that offered strong local records pro­grams, like Virginia and North Carolina, and decided to emulate their services, even if it had to be at a more modest level. Over the years, we have been able to establish the security microfilm stor­age program for Local governments; pro­vide filming services for their historical records; initiate a grants program; provide prompt, on-site professional assistance; and assist in the creation of some twenty local government records centers.

In the mid-1980s, field archivists sur­veyed county records. What kind of impact did that have on developing the program?

That’s another area where the NHPRC project funding had a profound effect on our PHMC archival priorities and ability to provide substantial services to local government. A grant of more than two hundred thousand dollars enabled us to employ nine field survey archivists to create an inventory of the records in sixty­-six county court houses – Philadelphia had its own functioning archives under its city home rule charter – and to prepare a report to assist counties wishing to create their own archives and records programs. The contacts we made, the experience and expertise our staff gained, and the goodwill created by the services provided, really launched our local records program. The project and an earlier NHPRC grant in 1979 to film early minutes and vital records of cities, townships and boroughs, actually provided more operating support for local records than provided by state funding over the previous eighty years!

Did you have a microfilming program at one time for municipal records?

We still do, thanks, again, to initial seed money from the NHPRC. We didn’t have a budget to do these things, so we applied for a grant in 1978 that we ran for two years. It was an excellent program; we worked through the local government associations. We contacted all of the municipalities that we could and got them involved in the program. We initially filmed one thousand rolls and since then have filmed several thousand rolls more at our Archives lab. Now we have the records of several hundred municipalities captured on film with security copies stored in our underground storage center.

What kind of impact has the genealogy boom had on the State Archives?

All government archives experienced a major and permanent increase in visita­tion as a result of Roots [the best selling book by Alex Haley]. If you go back to Roots in 1977 and the American Bicen­tennial in 1976, that was the perfect coin­cidence. Our annual visitation quadru­pled. It had inched up a little bit before, but has never made that big of a single jump since 1977. Annually over the past few years, we usually get between five and six thousand visiting researchers and another fifteen thousand who contact us by mail.

Electronic records that we are producing are becoming our great challenge. How do you assess where the Archives is at this point?

It is my impression that only the National Archives and one or two state archives have accessioned significant quantities of electronic records. After that, there are several states like Pennsylvania that have laid the groundwork to implement an active electronic records program where researchers can access the increasing number of electronic records being created by state offices. We recently completed a massive inventory of electronic records created by about forty-five major state departments and commissions and are completing phase system which will eventually enable state employees to save records created or received on their personal computer in accordance with pre-approved records retention and deposition schedules. Since Pennsylvania has been moving from a traditional paper-based record-keeping system to electronic systems for decades, we have already lost records of potential historical value. These projects will enable the State Archives to meet its responsibility to preserve and provide access to historical records regardless of the media format just as it has done for the past one hundred years for paper records.

Right now, we are faced with the chal­lenge of finding the resources to identify, preserve and provide access to records stored on computer tapes and discs while continuing to provide staffing, facilities, and equipment to manage paper-based records which, unlike Neanderthal Man, do not show any signs of becoming extinct in the near future! Electronic and paper records are, from a document standpoint, pretty much the same, but each require different types of expertise and resources to ensure their continued availability.

It’s a dramatic change. What are the implications for the future?

The historic shift from paper­-based record-keeping to electronic systems means our staff will have to be able to identify electronic value and be able to eventually accession them and provide public access to such records, just as we do for records on parchment and paper. If archives are unable to overcome the difficulties involved in ensuring the continued read­ability of electronic records, then future generations will find it much harder to write an accurate history of our present times than of an event that took place hundreds of years ago.

 

For Further Reading

Cox, Richard J. Managing Records as Evi­dence and Information. Westport, Conn.: Quorum Books, 2001.

Dearstyne, Bruce W., ed. Effective Approaches for Managing Electronic Records and Archives. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2002.

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

Jimerson, Randall C., ed. American Archival Studies: Readings in Theory and Practice. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2000.

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

Stout, Leon J. Historical Records in Pennsylvania: An Assessment Report for the State Historical Records Advisory Board. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1983.

 

Leon J. (Lee) Stout is head of Public Services and Outreach for the Eberly Family Special Collections Library of the Pennsylvania State University Libraries. From 1974 to September 2001, he served as Penn State’s university archivist and holds the academic rank of librarian, special collections. He also teaches in the library studies and history programs and is a frequent guest lecturer on campus history and architecture. He is the author of a number of articles on archival topics and wrote Historical Records in Pennsylvania: An Assessment Report for the State Historical Records Advisory Board (1983), for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. He has served since 1989 as a member of the Pennsylvania State Historical Records Advisory Board and was recently appointed to the U.S. National Historical Publications and Records Commission and its executive com­mittee. He has served as chair of the Mid­-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference and as treasurer, vice president, and president of the Society of American Archivists (SAA). In 1996, he was named a fellow of the SAA, the organization’s highest individual award.