By Dave Fidlin
Thousands of photos and artifacts will be on display in October for National Archives Month
While current information in today’s instantaneous environment is available on our smart devices and laptops almost effortlessly, records from the pre-digital era are not always as accessible.
San Diego City Clerk Elizabeth Maland has been on a mission to change this scenario with an ambitious multi-year project aimed at ensuring records — including the 1856 Pueblo maps of the region — are available for generations of people to come.
“It’s something we’re very proud of,” Maland said, referring to the entire clerk’s office. “It’s been a long time coming.”
Earlier this year, the Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO), recognized Maland and her staff for embarking in what more formally has been known as the Archives Access and Preservation Project.
SOHO named Maland to its outstanding public service award this year amid its People in Preservation recognition effort.
“Every student, historian and researcher knows you have to be savvy, creative and dogged when searching for information you need,” SOHO officials wrote of naming Maland to the award. “Sometimes, you joyfully stumble upon records you had no idea existed.”
When asked why she feels it is important to embark on what can sometimes be a painstaking effort, Maland shared a number of reasons. Offering ready access to public information, she said, is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy.
“These records also show how the city came into being,” Maland said. “This is very important because the information provides context.”
Maland said she was gratified to receive SOHO’s award this spring, though she was quick to point out that a number of municipal officials deserve some of the credit as well, including Mayor Kevin Faulconer and the full San Diego City Council.
“There’s so many other fires burning in this city,” Maland said of the priorities elected officials face. “This is something that requires a lot of attention, and there could be people out there who might not see this as a pressing project.”
Maland also credits a cadre of city staffers in her office, including Sheila Beale, deputy director of records management, and “a robust volunteer program,” in making the project a reality.
Organizers, Maland said, have rolled up their sleeves and devoted countless man-hours toward the Archives Access and Preservation Project, preserving information from eras long since passed. While digitizing old records and artifacts is part of the equation, so too is restoring the records in their original form.
“This is a multi-faceted project,” Maland said. “There’s a lot to it.”
For 30 years, a records preservation program has been on the city’s books with the creation of an archives center at City Hall. The overtures were ramped up, starting in fiscal year 2014, when a $50,000 line item was added to the city budget to fund the project that SOHO recognized.
Maland said original copies of the city’s oldest records are kept in remote locations. Some are kept in an off-site storage facility in the area, while others are even stored in salt mines in Kansas.
For obvious reasons, old materials deteriorate with time. As decades and centuries pass, the importance of ensuring these artifacts are kept in climate-controlled, fire-suppressed environments increases.
Maland said the financial and philosophical support that Faulconer and the City Council have given her office has aided in addressing storage space needs, which were cramped, prior to the funding granted nearly five years ago.
SOHO made note of how important the project has been the past several years. The effort has improved public access to rare publications, documents and maps — including fragile pioneer statehood records dating back to the 1850s.
“Providing online access is crucial as we rely more and more on digital devices, especially among younger generations, who are, after all, our future historians,” SOHO officials wrote.
A sample of the city’s rich collection of archival information will be on display this month in the lobby of the City Administration Building, 202 C St.
The overture, Maland said, is a nod to American Archives Month, which the Society of American Archivists recognizes each October in the hope of raising awareness of restoring old artifacts.
Throughout the year, the city also offers a repository of digitized records via the official municipal website. It can be accessed at sandiego.gov/digitalarchives.
—Dave Fidlin is a freelance journalist with a special affinity for San Diego and its people. Contact him at email@example.com.