Opinion and Editorials

EDITORIAL: Save the archives

March 16, 2013

State lawmakers are understandably preoccupied with big issues like jobs and education, but before the session ends, they should attack another problem that has nearly been forgotten.

The dilapidated building on the east side of Indianapolis where the state’s archives are stored needs to be replaced—and the sooner, the better. The risk of a tornado or other calamity destroying priceless documents in a structure originally used by RCA to warehouse 8-track tapes is simply too great.

In the unthinkable event of a disaster, many of the documents could not be recovered.

They include the original 1816 and 1851 state constitutions, and all the laws passed by the Legislature, as well as court decisions, business incorporations, and records of inmates and mental health patients.

Because of a 1973 fire in St. Louis, Indiana has the only records of military service for some veterans.

The archives also are a treasure trove of documents that, while not critical legally, nevertheless remind us of our heritage: the earliest known road map (in Harrison County near Louisville), original plats of Indianapolis, naturalization records. And decades before there was Google Maps, Department of Transportation film shot along Indiana highways.

The documents, now numbering 300 million pages, were moved in 2001 from the damp basement of the state library downtown to enable a remodeling. The relocation to 6440 E. 30th St. was supposed to be temporary. But longtime state archivist Jerry Handfield took a job in another state, then Gov. Frank O’Bannon—also a champion of a better facility—died suddenly two years later.

Since the move, two tornados have passed menacingly close, the building in effect dodging bullets like the lawmen who survived run-ins with John Dillinger.

Vulnerability to natural disasters isn’t the only reason the building is unfit for archives.

A rubber roof was installed a couple of years ago, but not before rainwater dripped onto documents that dedicated archivists had covered in plastic just days prior.

The ancient ventilation system spews soot-like crumbs of deteriorated insulation. And, partly because of air leaks in the building shell, humidity levels swing between 15 percent and 60 percent.

And while the security system is reasonably good, the building is no fortress.

Name a state that treats its treasured documents worse.

Unfortunately, no one is talking about this problem—not Gov. Mike Pence, who is preoccupied with his proposed income-tax cut, or lawmakers, who have other ideas for the state’s bulging surplus.

Plans for a $30 million replacement were shelved during the recession, but should be revived now that penny-pinching is no longer necessary. It’s time to stop kicking this can down the road.

Lawmakers saw fit to pass a law creating the state’s archives 100 years ago this month.

Pence, a history major in college, could cut the ribbon for a new facility in time for the state’s bicentennial in 2016.•
 

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