Thousands of state and local government files are buried in dusty boxes in the basement of a Cheney gymnasium.
People looking for old court papers or school enrollment records must crawl over stacks of bound zoning maps.
Researchers, historians, attorneys and others in need of government records would find them more easily if the state approves plans to transfer the archives from Eastern Washington University to downtown Spokane.
The hitch: The Legislature must first approve a proposed $4 million building.
The proposed downtown reference center would serve as the new home of the regional archives and as a new library for the Riverpoint Higher Education Park, North Riverpoint Boulevard.
If it’s built, the archives center would be within walking distance of students from Gonzaga University, and Spokane campuses of Eastern Washington University and Washington State University.
Pushing the project is the Washington secretary of state’s office, which runs five regional archives, including the one now in Cheney.
The key is convincing the Legislature.
“We’ll certainly need more information before we approve it,” said state Rep. Jean Silver of Spokane, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Silver, an influential budget-planning Republican, said she wonders if the state is better served by a new center or by having the archives moved into a remodeled building.
“We’ll need to look hard at the costs they set for (running the new building),” Silver said. “What people say and what we (legislators) think it will cost are not always the same.”
Archives officials are hoping for design money in the 1996 legislative session and construction money the year after. If that happens, the new site would open around July 1998.
The regional archives operate as the state’s official paper-keepers and records managers. As the state adopts new technology, increasing amounts of the records will be recorded in electronic form.
But for now, the Eastern Washington office is responsible for collecting and preserving important material from 11 counties and 58 cities.
According to the state, documents are worthy of archiving if they have long-term value, such as court cases, personnel records and tax rolls. It also means anything that’s historically interesting, said Regional Archivist Richard Hobbs.
For the past dozen years, Hobbs has collected Eastern Washington’s archives in a room beneath EWU’s basketball court that’s musty, cramped and difficult to find.
Hobbs said conditions could hardly be worse.
The room is frequently dusty because short walls don’t fully separate the archives from a storage shed, and the shed is often open to the outside, Hobbs said.
Water pipes are exposed and pose major risk of damage to already musty papers and ledgers.
Lighting is substandard, and heating and ventilation are no better.
“And we’re hopelessly overcrowded. It’s a hazard to crawl up on some of our materials, trying to reach a box on a top shelf,” Hobbs said.
“But the least ideal aspect is we’re located a considerable distance from most of our users.”
He estimates 75 percent of those using the archives are from Spokane - primarily lawyers. The others are mainly researchers working on academic projects or writers interested in state history.
Hobbs and others said they can expect two to three times as many visits and requests from callers if the archives move downtown. He expects to add two more workers to his staff to handle extra demand.
In the past six years, legislators gave money to upgrade regional archives in Bellingham, Bellevue and Ellensburg.
“It’s really clear that the one here is the last in line and needs upgrading,” Silver said.
If legislators approve the shared facility, half of the space would be for the archives; the other half for a library for EWU and Washington State University students in Spokane.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Some items have historical value Many of the documents, maps, photos, blueprints and assorted odds and ends at the Eastern Washington state archives are dull lists of dates, signatures and tax rolls. But some items hold obvious historical value, including: Assorted court records, such as a thick Walla Walla County court file from the infamous “Walla Walla Jesus” trial. The 1881 trial was that era’s version of the Baghwan Rajneesh controversy of recent years. A Portland minister, W.W. Davies, moved to Walla Walla and soon had residents living in a small community outside the city. Angered by misuse of property donated to him, some of Davies’ flock sued him to get even and to halt his influence. A jury rendered a verdict against Davies, and ordered property auctioned to repay the plaintiffs. Davies moved on. What’s now in the archives, though, is just a portion of the original record, said Walla Walla resident Larry Dodd. Residents and descendents of those mentioned in the suit rifled the file, removing documents that mentioned their involvement in the mess. Hundreds of historic photos. They vary from the only known photos of Gifford, Wash., buried under Lake Roosevelt in the 1930s, to circa-1940 crime-scene photos used by the Spokane County prosecutor’s office. A box of 63 recorded tapes with former Spokane legislator Albert Canwell. Canwell, who’s still alive, made the recordings with a member of the state’s oral history project. A key topic is Canwell’s role as chairman of a state committee in the late 1940s investigating “un-American activities” in Washington. Regional archivist Richard Hobbs said the tapes won’t be available to the public until a manuscript version is printed first. Other records hold potential value, depending on personal interest. Whitworth College Professor Linda Hunt, for instance, used old county clerk’s records to flesh out a biography of Mica Peak resident Helga Estby. Estby, in 1896, was a widowed mother who faced foreclosure on her home unless she could pay off several debts. In a unique rescue, a benefactor offered her $10,000 if she could walk across the country. Estby did exactly that, taking 7 months. “And some of the materials in here I frankly haven’t had time to examine,” Hobbs said. -Tom Sowa