Cultural affairs officials in Iowa struggle to find a balance between access and preservation

State Historical Society
The Centennial Building in Iowa City holds over 200 million documents. — photo by Adam Burke

Tallgrass Historians L.C. is a small, Iowa City-based business specializing in the research of historical information. The company is often called on by state and federal agencies planning to do preliminary research to determine if historically significant structures will be affected by large projects, like new roadways.

The work Tallgrass does is critical to maintaining Iowa’s cultural history, but to do this type of work, they require ample access to documents housed at the State Historical Society (SHSI) Iowa City Research Center, located in the Centennial Building on the corner of Gilbert and Iowa streets.

Recent changes to the way the SHSI manages this collection, however, are making it increasingly difficult for Iowans—and businesses such as Tallgrass—to access its wealth of historical documentation.

State Historical Society
The Centennial Building currently supports four full-time employees. — photo by Adam Burke

Back in February, the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA), drastically cut public hours. The building is now open Thursday through Saturday from 9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.—a 40 percent decrease from the previous schedule. At the same time public hours were cut, the DCA introduced set “archival retrieval times” for a large portion of the collection, which limits the amount of public archive retrievals to 10 per week. According to Jan Olive Full, manager of Tallgrass, these changes have fundamentally changed the way her small company does business.

“They will only retrieve things at these [specific] times, so my staff sits around waiting for one thing, or goes away and comes back, which is extremely inefficient,” Full said.

The longer it takes to access that information, the longer the project takes the company, and the more money they end up spending in the process.

“You don’t know in advance what you’re looking for to make a request for a retrieval time,” Full said. “It completely changes the business method that we’ve used here at Tallgrass, and I’m sure for everybody else, too. It’s incredibly chilling on research; it discourages research.”

According to an email from the DCA’s public information officer, Jeff Morgan, these changes to the day-to-day operation of the Centennial Building collection are the result of an ongoing, statewide “comprehensive collections planning process” as part of the DCA’s master plan. Morgan says this constitutes an assessment of the state of Iowa’s entire collection of archival materials, which are housed at about a dozen locations throughout the state.

The collection is comprised of more than 209 million items, including 1 million photographs, 110,000 artifacts, 40,000 cubic feet of State Government records, 75,000 newspaper microfilm reels, 15,000 cubic feet of manuscript collection and 300,000 historic books, Morgan wrote. He maintains that the DCA sees this comprehensive assessment as being necessary for the future of Iowa’s extensive collection. The assessment will be finished by July, and Morgan claims it will help the DCA find ways for the SHSI to adopt modern technology in order to, among other things, “expand access so Iowans across 99 counties can connect with their history.”

State Historical Society
The SHSI’s collection includes 75,000 newspaper microfilm reels. — photo by Adam Burke

Full rejects the idea that an assessment of these materials is necessary, however.

“What archivists and librarians do as a profession, for a living on a daily basis, is assess the collection,” Full said. “There’s no one on earth who knows the collection at the Centennial Building better than [current special collections coordinator] Mary Bennett. She knows it by heart. This business about it being an assessment project is just a ruse. I don’t believe it.”

For many, including Full and Tyler Priest, an associate professor in history and sustainability at the University of Iowa, this assertion that Iowa needs to adopt modern technology to reach more people means the DCA is diverting funds toward digitization at the expense of preserving the physical collection itself.

“These people [at the DCA] don’t understand the importance of collections,” Priest said. “They will say that they are going to be providing greater access by digitizing, and creating exhibits, but you can only digitize a very small percentage of what the SHSI has, and if they’re worried about the budget, digitizing is not cheap.”

Priest says that the more often documents like, for example, a Civil War soldier’s diary are handled, the more degraded they become. And given the fact that none of the four current full-time employees at the Centennial Building are tasked with performing highly-technical processes like the deacidification of paper, which are necessary to guarantee the long-term preservation of very old documents, the process of digitization seems daunting to say the least.

State Historical Society
The State Historical Society (SHSI) Iowa City Research Center is located in the Centennial Building on the corner of Gilbert and Iowa streets. — photo by Adam Burke

Full echoes many of Priest’s concerns about the degradation of the materials themselves, and adds that digitized records in an internet database often take more time to sift through than physical items at a library. Archivists save researchers time by knowing where materials are located within their collections, he says, adding that information can also be lost in the digitization process.

“Things can be stapled together in certain ways, or folded in certain ways, or may have smudge marks or little marginalia that may have been erased that just isn’t going to transfer to a digital document,” Full said.

This raises an important question: If digitization is inherently faulty, as some argue, why bother to digitize anything at all? Some would say, however, that this stance is shortsighted. A digital archive could expand access, especially to those with limited transportation. And while it’s true that documents would need to be handled during the digitization process, one could argue a ‘one-and-done’ approach is more prudent, as opposed to maintaining a non-digital archive wherein the repeated handling of documents is unavoidable.

Though they disagree about the means, it’s clear that both sides of the issue have the same interest at heart: striking a balance between accessibility and preservation.

That’s not to say Full is entirely against the idea of digitization, either. She laments that the SHSI hasn’t been digitizing local newspapers. According to Morgan, the organization has not converted newspapers to microfilm since 2009 due to budget cuts. From 1976 until 1992, the National Endowment for the Humanities supported the Iowa Newspaper Project (INP), which Morgan says allowed the SHSI to create a preservation unit that was able to prepare newspapers for microfilming.

“After the INP concluded, SHSI contracted with a vendor to microfilm weekly newspapers published in Iowa, and many of the state’s daily newspapers contracted directly with a vendor of their choice,” Morgan wrote in an email.

State Historical Society
The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs is currently assessing the state’s entire collection of archival materials, which are housed at about a dozen locations throughout the state. — photo by Adam Burke

There is some good news, however. In September 2014, the SHSI announced that it had secured the second of two grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities so that they could begin the Iowa Digital Newspaper Project (part of the National Digital Newspaper Program) to digitize selected Iowa newspapers published before 1923.

Full is still concerned about the present, however. She says newspapers can be one of the best ways to find information about the history of an area, but due to the cheap material they’re made from, they degrade quickly when not properly cared for, digitized or converted to microfilm. She worries that if the SHSI isn’t able to act soon, there will be a gap in Iowa’s history starting at the time of the budget cuts in 2009.

“We have to be better custodians of our history for our future generations, and we are not.”
— Tyler Priest reported in March that newspapers collected since 2009 at the SHSI archives in Des Moines are currently being piled in stacks on the floor because they’ve run out of space on shelves. When asked about the conditions under which newspapers and other archival materials are being stored at the Iowa City Research Center, Morgan said that, “Our collections are being stored using the current More Product, Less Process archival standard,” which is an archiving approach involving minimal processing and used by many libraries, including the Library of Congress.

There is also a growing concern among local historians and members of the community that Iowa City could lose the Centennial Building archive altogether. While the current state budget does not call for any cuts to the DCA’s Historical Division through 2016, there was a 27 percent decrease in funding between 2009 and 2013. While there was an increase of $400,000 in funds in 2014, the state has not allocated any additional funding for staffing through 2016.

Raising further concerns of closure, last year the DCA hired New York-based consulting firm Lord Cultural Resources at a cost of over $850,000 to conduct a broad assessment of Iowa’s historical resources. Their report suggested that the Des Moines and Iowa City branches of the SHSI be consolidated into one facility. It also concluded that Iowa has one of the lowest ratios of archivist to cubic-feet of archive materials in the country, likely due to the dwindling staff numbers at the SHSI.

In 2012 there were 10 employees at the Centennial Building; today there are only four full-time staff members, tasked with the management of the entire Iowa City collection.

“The fact that there’s only three or four people left in the Iowa City office is completely due to the intention on the part of the state agency to close the office,” Full said.

Current staff have been instructed not to comment on the ongoing assessment, or the possible future of the Centennial Building. After being asked several questions related to the staffing history of the building, the employee produced a notecard from a pocket marked with official talking-points. As state employees, they aren’t allowed to advocate for their jobs, the long-time employee said.

And while the future of the Centennial Building and the jobs of those who work there remains uncertain, so does the future of Iowa’s historical archives.

“These materials are being neglected,” Priest said. “We have to be better custodians of our history for our future generations, and we are not. How are we going to teach Iowa students Iowa history if we don’t have those collections? It’s one of the best collections in the country, and moving it to Des Moines would be bad, but what happens to them once they’re in Des Moines?”

Priest added, “Given the word that we’re hearing about reducing collections, and deaccessioning items, all we get [from the DCA] are platitudes about how these are exciting times for the Historical Society.”

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 176

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