Washington’s first female state archivist hopes to expand access to digital, paper records
Mon., July 11, 2022
As a longtime public servant in Thurston County, Heather Hirotaka is used to preserving history, not making it.
But that’s what Hirotaka did earlier this month, when Secretary of State Steve Hobbs appointed her as the next Washington state archivist, the first woman to ever hold the position.
In that role, Hirotaka will oversee the Washington State Archives, which collects and preserves the state’s historical records and makes them available to the public. The archives have branches in Bellevue, Bellingham, Ellensburg, Olympia and Cheney, which is the first state archives branch in the country dedicated to the preservation of electronic records.
Hirotaka said she is honored to be the first woman in the role, and that it’s incredible to think that it’s taken this long to have a female state archivist.
“I think that as a female, sometimes there are opportunities to see things a little bit differently, and to see things from maybe a different perspective,” Hirotaka said.
Hirotaka spent 18 years working at the Thurston County Auditor’s office, providing her with a ground-up understanding of the process of preserving state and local government records. She said she started as a recording specialist and worked her way up to the role of licensing and recording manager of the auditor’s office, before eventually leaving to join the Office of the Secretary of State in 2017.
She has always been passionate about history. Hirotaka said that passion has been fed by her own life experiences, as well as her husband’s family experience of being incarcerated in a Japanese internment camp during World War II.
“The family history side of it really appeals to me,” Hirotaka said. “Understanding where we come from, why it matters, why it’s important to tell those stories and why it’s important to make them accessible is hugely important to me just on a personal level, but also just that pride of being from Washington and knowing how we got here.”
As the daughter of a military man, Hirotaka spent her early years moving from base to base. She was born in Washington and returned for high school, graduating from a high school in Yakima before going on to earn a bachelor’s degree in law and justice from Central Washington University.
“Eastern Washington always has a special spot in my heart,” Hirotaka said. “Even though I live on the West side now, I’m still very, very connected and very passionate about Eastern Washington and making sure that Eastern Washington isn’t forgotten in the landscape of things that we do.”
Before accepting her new role as Washington state archivist, Hirotaka was the director of community programs at the Office of the Secretary of State. Hirotaka said one of her responsibilities as director was overseeing Legacy Washington, a program aimed at retelling the stories of extraordinary Washingtonians through public exhibits, novels, short stories and digital projects.
“I think when I met with Secretary Hobbs, and he heard that passion that I have for that program – because it’s so important to tell those stories and to preserve those stories – that I think for him, he was like, ‘This is a really great connection to move into archives’,” Hirotaka said.
Hirotaka will be able to continue sharing her passion with the Legacy Washington team, since the program followed to State Archives. She said their next project is focused on the 10-year anniversary of marriage equality for same-sex couples in Washington.
Hirotaka’s No. 1 priority as state archivist is to connect the public with the State Archives. She said it is a public resource that everyone should be able to use, and that there are friendly, hard-working people at the archives just waiting to help someone dig up a little history.
“I’m so passionate about what we do, and I think you can collect records forever, but if you don’t make them accessible, if you don’t tell the stories behind those records, what good do the records do you?” Hirotaka said. “So for me, it’s really about that outreach piece. It’s about making history in Washington state accessible, but also really thinking about who we’re trying to reach.”
As for who they are trying to reach, Hirotaka hopes to connect with a wider audience than those already familiar with their services. She wants to reach beyond the history buffs, and reach everyday citizens like a high-schooler who may not yet realize they have a passion for history, Hirotaka said.
“Everyday citizens who don’t understand why the archives are important, how do we make that connection for them and show them the value of archives?” Hirotaka said. “Our greatest asset at archives are the people, they are passionate about what they do, they love the history, they love the act of preservation. Nothing makes an archivist’s day more than finding this treasure that someone’s been looking for and making it accessible to them.”
Hirotaka said the digital archives, housed on servers at the Cheney branch, are some of the most robust in the nation, with over 238 million records. A large portion of them are searchable, with more and more becoming searchable as archivists work to index the records.
Inquiring minds can browse the digital records themselves, or can contact their local archives branch to speak with an archivist who can help them find what they are looking for, whether it’s a digital copy of a marriage certificate or an old property record book with a distant family member’s deed inside.
“It really, truly is my calling to be a part of making positive change in our state, and making things accessible and really opening it up to everyone so that everyone knows that they’re a part of it,” Hirotaka said. “And archives is a perfect place for that; everybody is a part of archives. Everybody has a story to tell and everybody has a history of where they come from. So, I think it’s pretty awesome to connect people with that.”
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