Vol. V, No. 4, Spring 1992


The Missouri State Archives Comes of Age

by Kenneth H. Winn



Amidst the hushed tones of the Missouri State Archives microfilm reading room it is quite common to hear an involuntary cry of triumph as a normally shy and retiring genealogist discovers a missing branch of a family tree, or a historian uncovers the evidence of a secret political bargain between an 1840s governor and his erstwhile opponents. Forthose in pursuit of historical research high drama routinely takes place in this quietest of environments.

History is our collective memory as a people and, in many ways, the State Archives serves as the State's memory. Among its holdings are governors' papers, transcripts of Supreme Court cases, an enormous volume of Civil War material, as well as individual items of great interest, such as the Spanish land grant given to Daniel Boone, Governor Thomas Crittenden's 1881 order putting a price on Jesse James's head, and the poll book signed by Marie Ruoff Byrum, making her Missouri's first woman voter. It holds some of the State's most priceless artifacts as well: the State Constitution, the original State Seal, and the original State Flag. These noteworthy items are joined by vast holdings of less notable but no less invaluable records that not only aid genealogists and historians, but allow government officials to understand the context ora problem they are trying to remedy, lawyers settle a property dispute, or even a banker (yes, it really does happen) find the heir to a distant relative's estate.

As significant as the work the Archives performs is, until recently its holdings and array of services has been known to relatively few Missourians. While Missouri's first constitution assigned to the Secretary of State the State's record-keeping duties, responsibility for the creation of a State Archives was not given to that office until 1965, and then its beginnings were quite modest. Faced with the daunting task of making sense of the 145 years of the state's archival practice (or more typically, lack thereof), the Archives staff had answered only 330 written requests and 114 oral requests for information as late as five years after its organization, somewhat less than the current staff handles during a normal week.

If the immensity of the initial task of organizing the Archives was rather staggering, the storage of the state's permanent records in an industrial warehouse was far from ideal. During the winter, portions of the archival stack area dropped below the freezing mark, while in summer other areas reached 140 degrees. Nor was there any attempt to control humidity levels. These conditions, if permitted to remain unchecked, were a prescription for cultural disaster, inevitably leading to the irreversible damage of these irreplaceable documents.

Accordingly, a team of legislative leaders and Secretary of State Roy Blunt worked to fulfill this longtime need of state government. The state legislature responded to this effort in the spring of 1986 by approving the construction of a Missouri State Information Center. The new center, which solved housing problems of the Division of Records and Archives Management, the State Library, and the Wolfner Library for the Blind, also contains, in addition to the Archives, the other offices of the Secretary of State: Administrative Rules, Campaign Reporting, Commissions, Corporations, Elections, Publications, Securities, and Uniform Commercial Code -- all of which were previously located in the Truman Building. Situated just west of the Capitol at the foot of historic Richmond Hill, the State Information Center is a handsome building, made of precast panels on its east side to harmonize with the Capitol and composed of red brick on its west side to harmonize with the residential neighborhood.

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As aesthetically pleasing as the building is, it is even more admirably suited to its primary function of providing an appropriate environment to preserve the state's historic records. At the MSIC the digitally controlled temperature is kept at a constant seventy-four degrees and the humidity is closely monitored to ensure it stays within archivally accepted standards. The installation of "compact" shelving also permits the Archives to store the over 16,000 cubic feet of records now available to the public in a much smaller space than is required by traditional shelving and has the capacity to absorb up to 40,000 cubic feet of material in the future. In addition, a new conservation lab, the first such lab in the Archives history, offers a state-of-the-art facility for the physical and chemical treatment of endangered manuscripts, books, and other paper documents.

As important as the preservation of the State's historical records is for future generations, Secretary of State Blunt has made providing public access to those documents today, the main duty of the staff. More hours are spent by the Archives employees in direct public service than in all other tasks combined. Visitation to the Archives since the move to the new building has risen dramatically. The State Information Center's high profile, its easy accessibility, and spacious accommodations (the Reading room, for example, now offers seating for fifty-five as opposed to fifteen and seventeen microfilm reader stations instead of nine) helped lead to a fifty percent increase in the number of patrons visiting the Archives -- a percentage that has continued to grow each month. During the 1991 fiscal year the State Archives responded to about 30,000 requests for information. Despite the disruption of service caused by the move to the new building, the number of requests answered by the Archives staff this year will easily exceed 40,000.

At the same time that requests for the Archives' assistance have been growing, the Archives' staff and resources have not. To cope with these unprecedented demands, the Archives has had to be both flexible and creative. A new way for answering the growing volume of mail, for example, has been devised. But, more importantly, the Archives has welcomed an expanding corps of volunteers, who have selflessly taken on many essential tasks, including much of the initial processing of our document collection. Closely allied with the volunteer program, is the student internship program. The Archives has always gladly accepted student help from William Woods College, Linn Technical School, Westminster College, Lincoln University, the University of Missouri-Columbia, and other schools. Beginning this fall the History Department at the University of Missouri-Columbia will offer regular course credit to both undergraduate and graduate students who work in the Archives.

In addition to those who contribute their time, the Archives has been also fortunate with those willing to give material aid. In the spring of 1989 Secretary of State Blunt brought together interested individuals from around the state to organize the "Friends of the Missouri State Archives" to help promote a greater understanding and appreciation of Missouri' s history and cultural heritage. Through the generous assistance of the Friends, the Archives has been able to enhance its public service by supporting genealogical workshops, publications, lectures, and other activities.

Indeed, if the heart of the Archives mission is its patron service and the collections's preservation, it also makes a vigorous outreach effort. Each year staff members talk with thousands of Missourians both in Jefferson City and in their hometowns about their state's history, how they might begin genealogical work, or how to preserve their family's papers and photographs. Secretary Blunt, working with Missouri teachers, also recognized the importance of bringing the collection of the Archives into the classroom. The result was "Teaching with Documents," which offers elementary school teachers a series of provocative documents that make the past come alive with an immediacy not often available to students.

Another outreach effort closely allied with the Archives is the Secretary of State's Local Records Program instituted by Secretary of State Blunt, and funded from a fee collected by County Recorders. Through this program archivists and records analysts help local government officials identify and preserve records of historical value and dispose of those that may be safely discarded. To date, this statewide program has uncovered a variety of documents ranging from 1840s school records and petitions to free slaves to poorhouse records and many of the original landscaping plans of Kansas City's park system. In addition, a tee-funded grant program allows local governments with special projects or special problems to tackle these things in a manner heretofore unavailable.

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Some of the records uncovered by the local records program are eventually microfilmed and added to the other 15,000 rolls of state and county records now available to researchers in the Archives. Included in this collection are probate records from the Archives' burgeoning judicial records project. While there is much left to do, the Archives is systematically microfilming the probate records of Missouri's I 14 counties. These probate records have proved especially useful to both genealogists attempting to discover information about their ancestors and social historians trying to understand the everyday lives of ordinary people.

In the year ahead the Archives should become an even more attractive place for the researcher. Late this summer the 1920 census will be made available to patrons, as will the first documents of previously closed World War I military records. Thousands of photographs and negatives from Missouri's late official state photographer, Gerald Massie, are currently being readied for public use, as well as thousands of new rolls of microfilm from throughout the state including Jasper, Newton, Polk, Ripley, and Washington counties, and other communities that are of special concern to people interested in the history of the Ozarks and its people.

The Missouri State Archives is open to the public from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM on weekdays, but has extended hours on Thursdays to 9:00 PM, and is open on Saturdays from 8:30 AM to 3:30 PM.

Other Sources for Missouri History

Nearly every county has an historical society that has manuscripts or artifacts pertinent to the history of its region. In addition to the Missouri State Archives, the two largest repositories for Missouri history are the State Historical Society of Missouri in Columbia and the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis.

The State Historical Society has more than 450,000 volumes of books, pamphlets, and magazines; 300,000 pages of original manuscripts; 150,000 state documents; more than 2400 maps and 75,000 photographs. Of special significance is its nearly definitive Missouri newspaper collection. Also of unusual importance is the J. Christian Bay Collection on Midwestern Americana; the Alice Irene Fitzgerald Collection, featuring material related to literature for children and youths; the Mahan Memorial Mark Twain Collection; the Eugene Field Collection; the Bishop William Fletcher Collection concerning the Methodist Church, and the Francis A. Sampson Collection, notable for its rare state publications.

The Missouri Historical Society, for its part, has more than 120,000 bound volumes, more than 430,000 photographs, negatives, sketches, and architectural drawings; an excellent map collection; and a large run of historic newspapers, especially those related to the St. Louis area. Its documentary collections are specially strong in material related to the French and Spanish colonization of the Mississippi River Valley, the fur trade and western exploration, the American Plains Indians, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the history of the river trade, and the 1904 World's Fair, as well as the papers of the Chouteau family, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, David R. Francis, educators Susan Blow and William Torrey Harris, authors Kate Chopin and Sara Teasdale, and social reformer Fanny Cook.

KHW

Kenneth Winn is the State Archivist of Missouri

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