A Historical Sketch of the Louisiana State Archives
The Louisiana State Archives, a division of the Louisiana Secretary of State's office, is mandated to identify, to collect, to preserve, to maintain and to make available those records and artifacts that enhance our endeavors to understand the dynamics and nuances of our state's remarkable history.
Created by the State Legislature in 1956 as the official repository for the state's historical records, the State Archives has called many places home since its conception. The "first" State Archives was located in Peabody Hall at Louisiana State University, a dilapidated structure slated for demolition by the State Fire Marshal's office. This was home for the state's official records until 1966 when the State Archives relocated to a former warehouse on Choctaw Boulevard in the industrial section of Baton Rouge. This facility was likewise not suitable for the proper preservation of the state's documentary heritage. In the early 1980s, following an extensive lobbying campaign, the legislature funded construction of a new State Archives building on Essen Lane. In August 1987, this state of the art facility was officially opened. Designed by architect John Desmond, the building was hailed as one of the foremost archival facilities in the nation.
In August 1997, the Louisiana State Archives celebrated the tenth anniversary of the move to its new facility on Essen Lane in Baton Rouge. The formidable white fortress-like structure is one of the nation's most advanced archival repositories. The facility was built with some of the most advanced building systems of its time designed to provide climate controlled areas for state-of-the-art archival storage. The building, however, stands in stark contrast to the State Archive's first fifty years in existence.
Prior to 1936, no state archives existed. Neither was there any other public agency designated to fulfill the function of directing a program of collecting, preserving, and making available for use the state's historical records. Louisiana had come well into the twentieth century with scant attention paid to its official documentary heritage and with apparent lack of concern for its recorded legacy. This shortcoming was especially egregious considering the rich history of the state. No other state possessed the volume and variety of European colonial and American territorial records that existed in Louisiana.
In 1935, however, the activities of one man resulted in an impressive step forward for Louisiana's historical records. Dr. Edwin A. Davis of the History Department at Louisiana State University (LSU) convinced the administration of the University that they should establish and fund an independent Department of Archives and Manuscripts to collect and preserve archival materials. Dr. Davis was subsequently appointed director of the university archives. Dr. Davis' concern for the subject was contagious enough to influence lawmakers at the next regular session of the state legislature. During the regular session of 1936, Dr. Davis was able to secure passage of legislation which enabled the university archives to act as repository for the public records of state government. Act 258 empowered the university to collect state documents and authorized officials to turn over records to it.
The LSU Archives had thus become a quasi-state archives, collecting the records of state government on a passive basis. The university would fill that role for twenty years. Davis continued to direct the activities of the university archives and its growing collection of state records. The 1936 law had provided for the State Printing Office to print and furnish to the archives one hundred copies of any report or other official publication required by any state agency. Two notable exceptions to this requirement were the reports of the Louisiana Supreme Court and the Acts and Journals of the legislature. During the 1940 regular session of the legislature, further changes were made to the public records law. Act 195 of 1940 expanded the definition of what constituted a public record. The law stipulated that virtually all records generated for the conduct of business under the authority of the State of Louisiana were declared to be public records. Provisions were also made for expanded access by the public to its government's records and custodians were now mandated to maintain those documents for twelve years. Taken together, the legislative initiatives of 1936 and 1940 created a volume of documents flowing into the LSU Archives that had not been anticipated by Davis. The problem had to be solved by the state government itself.
In 1954, Davis took temporary leave of his post at LSU to spearhead the effort to establish a viable state archives. Using the considerable experience he had gained during his participation in the New Deal's Historic Records Survey in the state, Davis took on the task of becoming the chief consultant to the Louisiana Archives Survey. The survey was conducted between 1954 and 1956, and constituted a census of records produced by the government of the state. It was during that period that Davis secured passage of legislation establishing a governmental entity officially responsible for the collection, care and use of public records.
The State Archives and Records Act (Act 337 of the 1956 Regular Session) expanded further the provisions of the Public Records Act of 1940 and established the State Archives and Records Service as an independent agency under the aegis of the State Archives and Records Commission. The Commission was composed of the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, and the State Auditor.
This legislative success was foreshadowed quickly by an event prophetic of the difficulties yet to come: Act 337 was duly signed into law but operating funds were vetoed by Governor Earl Long. Dogged determination on the part of Dr. Davis and John C.L. Andreassen, the State Archives' first director and former head of the Historic Records Survey in Louisiana, resulted in an emergency appropriation of $43,140 from the Board of Liquidation. In addition to this lack of funds, location was rapidly becoming a problem. At the time, most of the records in the custody of the State Archives were being stored in metal warehouses behind the Capitol Annex. Construction of River Road behind the Annex required the removal of these warehouses and the relocation of the records within. Borrowed space in the Capitol building enabled the fledgling agency to survive until the next legislative session when the State Archives would receive its first regular appropriation. With its first predictable source of revenue, the State Archives moved into Peabody Hall on the old LSU campus adjacent to the Capitol.
By August of 1961, the Archives, now under the direction of John E. Regard, had acquired the colonial and territorial records from Avoyelles Parish. Shortly thereafter Henry Lastrapes, the Clerk of Court for St. Landry Parish, agreed to transfer to the Archives the records of the French colonial post at Opelousas. Under the dedicated volunteer effort of Mr. Winston DeVille, these records were indexed and cataloged. The project eventually yielded one of the first guides to materials at the State Archives: Calendar of Louisiana Colonial Documents. (Louisiana State Archives and Records Commission, 1961) In addition to this early collecting of archival materials, the staff was also engaged in developing a microfilm program. By the fall of 1961 the Archives was filming the records of nearly a dozen state agencies and half as many Clerks of Court. Despite these early successes in archival activity and records management, Peabody Hall was so dilapidated that it was soon condemned by the State Fire Marshall. In December of 1966, the state finally made provisions for removing the State Archives from Peabody Hall. The accumulated collections were relocated to a renovated motorcycle dealer's warehouse at 1515 Choctaw Dr. in an industrial section of Baton Rouge. Despite numerous structural modifications, the facility remained particularly unsuited for the storage of archival materials.
Notwithstanding the move into considerably more spacious, albeit environmentally problematic, surroundings, the programmatic elements of the State Archives remained relatively undeveloped. Both archival collecting and active records scheduling continued on an ad hoc basis. In 1972 the State Archives and Records Commission was abolished. At that time, the State Archives became a division of the Secretary of State's office. This bureaucratic alteration, however, did little to enhance the number of staff or level of funding. Operations at the State Archives continued at essentially the same level.
In 1974, Dr. Donald Lemieux was appointed director of the State Archives and Records Service. Lemieux advocated the idea that comprehensive records management at the state agency level would not only result in increased efficiency and cost savings, but would also provide a wellspring of materials for the archival collections. Consequently, enhanced emphasis was placed on records management activities. Teams of records management consultants visited state agencies to inventory holdings, establish records retention and disposal schedules, and identify records of archival value then in agency custody. This accelerated pace of activity resulted in increased demand for microfilming and records storage services. As consultants inventoried and transferred increasing numbers of archival materials, a viable archives section began to take form. Finally, in March of 1977, an archivist was employed to catalog these collections on a full-time basis. Mining the wealth of Louisiana's colonial documents was a pursuit that was long overdue. Within two years, two major finding aids for colonial records at the State Archives were prepared and made available to the public. The Opelousas Post, 1764-1789: a Guide to the St. Landry Parish Archives Deposited at the Louisiana State Archives and Calendar of Documents of the Opelousas Post, 1764-1789, were both published by Le Comité des Archives de la Louisianne in 1979.
As the records management and archival components of the State Archives began to develop fully, public awareness of the need for an increased commitment to the state's historical records began to grow. By 1978, public pressure to address the problem of inadequate facilities for archival storage evoked a response from the Governor and Legislature. Governor Edwin Edwards approved a legislative initiative to authorize funding for the construction of a new State Archives building. In June 1979, it was announced that under the leadership of then Secretary of State Paul Hardy the state had acquired a tract of land on Essen Lane in suburban Baton Rouge for the building and that John Desmond, of John Desmond and Associates, had been hired as the project's architect. Plans for the building were completed by mid-1980, but a firm commitment for complete funding to begin construction could not be obtained. A campaign on the part of the staff at State Archives and the Secretary of State's office, in concert with members of the historical, genealogical, and archival community throughout the state, would bring results, once one last problem was surmounted.
Governor Dave Treen proposed, after entering office in March of 1980, that a Capitol Complex should be created to concentrate all major state departments and offices in the area around the state Capitol building in downtown Baton Rouge. The recommendation proposed that the new State Archives facility be constructed as part of this complex. While the proposal would place the facility in a location central to most state agency's offices, it would also situate the State Archives in the midst of the worst air pollution in the entire city-parish area. Fortunately, a study of the Capitol Complex recommended construction of an adequate archival facility and concluded that the Essen Lane site was the most suitable location. The funding request was then approved by the Legislature on July 12, 1982, with one-half million dollars made immediately available for planning and $10.46 million approved for construction.
Construction on the new State Archives building began in November of 1984 under Secretary of State Jim Brown. Due to the highly technical nature of much of the facility's physical plant and supporting systems, construction of the building took two and a half years. By the late spring of 1987, the Archives' staff began the arduous task of relocating the collections from the Choctaw Drive location to the new facility. Fifteen thousand cubic feet of archival collections and fifty thousand feet of Records Center holdings had to be prepared, loaded, transported, unloaded, inventoried, and returned to the shelves. Work crews labored diligently through the spring and early summer on the move and by early August the doors at the old Choctaw location were closed for the last time.
On August 24, 1987, the new building was officially dedicated. The opening ceremonies were attended by Governor Edwards and several former governors, the Archivist of the United States and nearly a dozen other state archivists, as well as a host of state officials and members of the state's historical and genealogical communities. Highlighting the opening ceremonies was the display of the original Louisiana Purchase treaties, on loan from Washington, D.C.. The loan of these priceless items was a good indication of the confidence placed by archival professionals at the National Archives in the security and environmental controls in place at the new State Archives facility.
The new State Archives building corrected the problems of limited storage and inadequate environmental controls which limited activities at the old location. Archival storage was expanded from a capacity of fifteen thousand cubic feet to seventy-five thousand cubic feet. Likewise, the Records Center was expanded from fifty to eighty thousand cubic feet of storage. A modern research library replaced incidental space available to researchers in the past. A one-hundred seat auditorium was included in the building to allow for meetings, conferences, lectures and seminars. One completely new addition to the building was the inclusion of two exhibit rooms enabling the presentation of archival materials in the custody of the State Archives as well as those loaned for temporary exhibition.
While the expansion of physical space was a critical element for programmatic enhancements at the Archives, it was not the only factor to shape developments in the 1990s. The contracting state economy of the 1980s resulted in budget shortfalls across the face of state government and presented newly elected Secretary of State Fox McKeithen with some difficult fiscal choices. Just as the Archives moved into its new home it faced serious challenges brought about by the state's sagging economy. In a move that proved controversial in the archival and historical communities, in 1988 a majority of the Secretary of State's office was moved into the Archives building at the expense of over 30,000 cubic feet of storage for agency records awaiting final disposition. To compound the agency's difficulties the microfilm unit was all but eliminated, forcing a drastic reduction in the Archives' ability to provide state agencies with an economic alternative to commercial vendors and eliminating the capability to microfilm archival records. The diminution of microfilm services continued to present challenges to archival and records management activities but a recovering economy allowed the Secretary of State's office to move several major departments out of the Archives building in 2003, although a few non-archival departments remain.
Despite the significant obstacles presented by wildly fluctuating state budgets, the Archives has had success in expanding the number of state agencies, and their subdivisions, placing their records under approved records retention schedules. Archival and preservation functions have had to adapt to new demands to assist an expanding museum system in the Department of State. These challenges faced Dr. Florent Hardy when he became State Archivist in 2000. Hardy has pressed an agenda which included expanding accessibility to archival collections and raising the public's awareness of the State Archives and its mission. Services performed by the reference staff have expanded to serve a growing public interested in genealogical research. In addition to information on family history, visitors to the Archives can view samples from the growing audio-visual holdings.
The Archives observed the completion of a $1.5 million renovation November 20, 2003, with the dedication of the Barbara "Tita" Womack Gardens in the facility's courtyard. Also included in the renovation project was the addition of new archival shelving, installation of new carpeting and flooring, construction of new offices, installation of an audio/visual system in the State Archives auditorium, remodeling of exhibit areas, construction of new portable display cases, installation of a new security system, new window treatments and the refurbishment of the building's interior. During this same period, the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development expanded Essen Lane and added a new access road in front of the State Archives building. The addition of a new on-ramp connecting Essen Lane with Interstate 12 decreased the size of the front lawn. An attractive security wall was constructed around the front of the State Archives building which created a beautifully landscaped garden dedicated as the Edwin Davis Plaza.
Since the turn of the new century, the event that unquestionably presented the greatest challenge was the 2005 hurricane season. In 2005 Louisiana was pummeled by two catastrophic hurricanes. On August 29 Hurricane Katrina devastated southeast Louisiana causing over $81 billion in damage. On September 26 Hurricane Rita hit southwest Louisiana causing over $11 billion in damage. While the loss of records pales in comparison with the massive loss of life caused by the two storms, an inestimable number of precious historical records were damaged or lost, as were records critical to the conduct of municipal, parochial, and state governments. The Archives concentrated on acting as a clearinghouse for information needed by parish and local governments to stabilize their records situation to the greatest extent possible. Numerous visits were made to affected areas, some in the immediate aftermath of the storms and some which have continued to this day. Given the immense scope of the damage inflicted by these two powerful storms, it may be decades before the full extent of the loss is known.
Despite its adversities, the State Archives stands poised to address the needs of state government as it faces the challenges of the information age. Initiatives are underway to gain control of the management of machine readable records as state government continues to embrace modern information processing technology. As we enter a new millennium, the State Archives stands prepared to engage the critical function that challenges archives throughout the nation and the world: to preserve the memory of a culture through the preservation of its documentary record. It is this memory which empowers society to seek the expansion of freedom which is implied in Jefferson's phrase...."Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."