The Sonoma County Archives, a shared responsibility
The historical records known as the “Sonoma County Archives” are a record of local history, in some cases dating back to the formation of Sonoma County in the mid-1800s. Some of these archival materials are priceless resources, that must be preserved, catalogued and accessible.
Easier said than done. “The archives” have multiple owners. The library owns some of the material, but the bulk of 19th, 20th and 21st Century public records belong to the County of Sonoma, comprising thousands of government business records that have been designated archival by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, at the recommendation of the Historic Records Commission.
The library acts as the custodian of these records, and the county-owned building at Los Guilicos is inaccessible to the public, so public access is limited. Plus, the storage facility at Los Guilicos is in the path of wildfire, and has suffered two close calls in recent years.
The Sonoma County Library is committed to a long term solution to make these materials safe and accessible, so all can take advantage of these extraordinary resources. An in-person inventory is underway and will be complete by the end of April.
Next steps include moving a small portion of the materials – the items most requested by library patrons – to another facility for safekeeping. We will not move the bulk of the materials to the basement at our Central Library. It has access issues and could be prone to flooding.
Library staff and commissioners are meeting with the county to discuss the best way forward. The Sonoma County Library Commission has established a goal of relocating the materials by September (sooner, if possible), but we need help from the county, which owns most of the records. The library welcomes the opportunity to work with the county to resolve this issue.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the archives?
What some refer to as “the archives” is not a monolithic set of materials – it is a mix of local government records and historical materials.
What’s happening now?
Staff are at work on an in-house inventory of the historic records at Los Guilicos, a project that will be complete by the end of April.
We have met with Supervisor Gorin and agree that the county and the library have to work quickly and prioritize this solution. The Library Commission has set September as a deadline to relocate the materials – the clock is ticking.
Who uses these records?
Almost all requests for materials are from the county itself, from a variety of departments. We also get requests from researchers and historians.
Why is this taking so long?
There are multiple owners of the materials, although the County of Sonoma owns most of them. With so many challenges from the pandemic, the economy, wildfires and more, the library and the county put our attention elsewhere. Now, we are taking active steps to address the issue.
Who owns the materials?
Most of them are owned by the county; the library has been a custodian for many decades.
Why can’t we put the materials in the Central Library basement?
It’s simply impractical. The basement access is narrow and difficult, the area is not ADA accessible, it’s susceptible to flooding, we have other needs for that space, and the future of the building is unclear; the city and county are studying downtown locations for a new civic center.
What about the cost of the inventory and relocation?
The library has managed and preserved this collection for more than 65 years as a public service, at our own cost, while the county has provided storage space at Los Guilicos at no cost. We have funds budgeted for an extensive inventory, which is estimated to cost about $140,000, and we welcome support from the county or private donors. The cost of relocation will depend on where the materials go.
Can’t you just digitize everything?
Some items have been digitized and more will be, as digitized materials are more accessible to users. However, digitization, done properly, is expensive and slow. Historians and archivists support digitization, but point out that the physical artifact often tells a researcher a lot that cannot be preserved by digitization.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution. These are valuable materials and we fully support their preservation and relocation to a safer place, but we have work to do before we know the final solution. We are eager to continue talks with the county toward this end.
What can I do to help?
- The Sonoma County Library Commission has a monthly progress report at its monthly meeting, the first Monday of each month. Information about the meetings is here.
- You can visit our Sonoma County Archives webpage, where we will post updates as the situation changes.
- Members of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors have expressed a willingness to work with the library on a solution, and you can thank your local supervisor for working with us.
- You can donate toward the relocation of these materials through the Sonoma County Public Library Foundation, with your donation designated to “Sonoma County Archives.”
- The historical and business records known as “the archives” are located in a fire-prone area and must be relocated by September, preferably sooner
- The materials have multiple owners – most are owned by the County of Sonoma, and county departments are the most frequent users
- The library does not have another suitable facility to house all these materials
- It’s vital that the county and the library work together to address this issue – it’s a shared responsibility