Friday, September 14, 2012

Arizona Historical Society to preserve Yuma's ‘hidden treasures'


Archivists have uncovered “hidden treasures” in Yuma, and they are eager to preserve and share them with the rest of the world.

These hidden treasures are photographic collections, manuscripts and historical documents that tell Yuma's story. They are currently crammed in the back rooms of the Adobe Annex Museum Shop, next to the Arizona Historical Society Sanguinetti House Museum, 240 S. Madison Ave. Due to lack of space, some items are kept in off-site storage.

Currently, if someone wants access to an old document or photograph, museum curator Carol Brooks will dig through boxes or file cabinets to find the requested record. It's no problem for her; she knows where every piece can be found.

However, the historical records are not easily accessible outside of Yuma and they're not in the Arizona Historical Society system, like other collections around the state.

AHS wants to change that, making Yuma's history as easily accessible to a local resident as to a researcher in, say, Germany. The organization's Libraries and Archives Division announced plans to catalogue, preserve and make digitally available written, photographic and other material concerning Yuma's history.

Ann Woosley, AHS executive director, met with members of the Yuma County Historical Society and other local history buffs to share the plans.

“We've been discussing for a long time what can we possibly do to preserve these historical records,” Woosley said.

Although AHS has never worried about losing historical records, the organization has been concerned about the confined space and access.

“They're so hard to get to because of the limited space, but we've never had the ability to do anything other than keep the collection secure,” she said.

Lack of funding has been the main obstacle to processing the historical records, but grants have recently become available that will make this project possible.

“Funding sources are looking for underserviced areas and Yuma is considered an underserviced area,” said Linda Whitaker, director of the AHS Library and Archives Division and a certified archivist.

Funding sources are especially excited about the historic photographs found in Yuma.

“Your stuff is so unique and you have every weird format imaginable, including the earliest type of photos taken,” such as a collection containing 20 photos from 1839, Whitaker said.

The plan is to temporarily move the historical records to the AHS Museum at Papago Park in Tempe.

“First thing, we need to get them out of the confined space they're in. They cannot work in the Adobe Annex. There's absolutely no room to work,” Woosley said.

The records will be moved “as soon as feasible,” which could be the last week of September, Whitaker noted.

The process will take about 18 to 24 months. Whitaker and her staff, which includes a certified photograph conservationist, will work on the “easy stuff” first, then the “sticky” stuff like photo albums.

“Yuma has hundreds of albums. They're hard to digitize, harder than loose photos. (The photo archivist) won't tear them apart, she'll keep them intact,” Whitaker explained.

Once staff processes a collection, they will return it immediately to Yuma. However, they won't return it to the Adobe Annex. AHS hopes to house the archives and records at the Yuma County Main Library.

“It's so state-of-the-art. It's a such a wonderful library facility,” Woosley said.

Housing the historical documents will allow access to a wider audience. “But that doesn't mean just anybody can pull a historical photograph,” Woosley noted.

Some collections will be open while others will be secured. The library staff will be trained to assist people in their search and AHS will provide someone with historical knowledge, perhaps a curator, during limited hours.

Although housed at the library, AHS will maintain ownership of the collections. If AHS builds or acquires a suitable facility, the archives and records will “come home.”

The project will cost an estimated $150,000, covered through combined grants. The State Library, State Archives and Arizona Memory Project support the project.

“Funders love finding hidden treasures,” Whitaker said. “What we have here is sexy. What makes Yuma sexy? It's underserviced. In the archives world, it's unique, unprocessed, never catalogued. It is relatively unmessed with.”

The “good news” is that the historical collections are mostly “intact,” thanks to Yuma's favorable climate.

The grant hasn't been written as Whitaker is still gathering information, but funding sources are expecting it. “I've tilled the soil,” Whitaker said.

She invited Yumans to add to the pot to conserve as many collections as possible. “I'm not above begging, and so should you,” she said.

Some locals expressed concern that collections might disappear once they leave Yuma, as happened in the case of the Yuma Territorial Prison when the state took it over.

“We want to make sure we get our history back,” Betsy Gottsponer said.

Whitaker assured them that she is “passionate” about returning historical records to their communities.

“You are talking to the returning queen here in Arizona,” Whitaker said. “I am passionate about local history and returning them to local communities.”

Items taken for processing will be inventoried before they leave Yuma so locals know what to expect when they return. She agreed to outline the process and include assurances that all property will be returned in a written document.

In addition, Whitaker explained that researchers and historians will have access to records while they are in Tempe.

County Supervisor Lenore Stuart expressed excitement about the project. “We've waited a long time to get anything done. We've been the stepchild in the state for so long.”

Jim Valenzuela said he was happy the records would be preserved for future generations.

Whitaker invited Yumans to follow the conservation process through staff blogs and videostreaming on the AHS website: She will also be happy to give tours, she said.