Only in York County author Joan Concilio, left, got a tour of the Pennsylvania State Archives from now-retired Supervisor of Reference Services Jonathan Stayer, right, in December 2019.
Pennsylvania State Archives a great resource for history-lovers
Let me start today by apologizing for the lack of columns for the past few weeks. After my parking lot fall in mid-December, there was a cross-country drive to my in-laws’ in Arizona for Christmas, which involved a wreck that totaled our car but – amazingly – did not injure anyone! But it meant some pretty hectic scrambling to find a way to get home.
I’m safely back in Pennsylvania now, with a new SUV, and very glad both to be home and to be back in your Sunday paper.
Before those exploits, though, I had a really neat opportunity in early December: Jonathan Stayer, who you may remember helped me decipher some handwriting on a 1908 postcard, offered my family a tour of the Pennsylvania State Archives.
Jonathan is now retired, but at the time of our tour was just finishing up his work at Supervisor of Reference Services at the Archives, where he’d worked for 35 years keeping the state’s original documents safe and accessible.
The Archives are an amazing resource for researchers and history-lovers. We left our tour with research projects in mind we want to pursue – in all our free time! – and can’t wait to go back and dig in more. The thing is, when I asked Jonathan what he most wanted to be sure people knew about the Archives, he said, “Just that we’re here!” The amount of resources the Archives team can make available is amazing, and I’d love to see more people interested in our state and local history take advantage of them.
Jonathan gave us an amazing look at the Archives’ collections, including:
- A Civil War muster sheet listing Charles D. Fuller, who was discharged at Camp Lewis, Md., after being “detected as being a female.” (Go, “Charles!”)/li>
- An amazing postcard collection of state landmarks.
- A movie taken of the original section of the Pennsylvania Turnpike – from a camera attached to a car driving it, the original GoPro recording!
- The Civil War conscientious objector record for one of his ancestors on the grounds of religious beliefs (Jonathan calls this the most important document in the Archives – or at least the coolest!)
- Handwritten notes from a state police officer who responded to Shanksville at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, Flight 93 crash, taken as he was getting calls about the event.
There were so many cool things, I couldn’t begin to list them all, but hopefully that will whet your appetite for what can be found. (Keep an eye out for the time each year when the State Museum displays, courtesy of the Archives, William Penn’s original 1681 charter for the Pennsylvania colony! That document is kept in special storage the rest of the time, but I definitely plan to get up to see it next time it’s on display!)
Generally, you can learn about the Archives at www.phmc.pa.gov/Archives, but some quick highlights of the institution and its process:
- It was founded in 1903 as a division of the State Library, and opened in its current building on North Third Street in Harrisburg in 1964. A new building is coming, hopefully in 2021, and the State Museum will use the current Archives space – one floor below ground, one at ground level and 17 above it – for storage of its collections. Since 1945, the Archives have been part of the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission.
- The Archives contains an estimated 250 million pages of original records, with the earliest dating to 1664. Generally the focus is on original-source documents from state government, but there are also papers from private citizens and organizations of importance to the commonwealth’s history. (On a related note, the State Library, which is actually operated through the Department of Education, is the home for published works of note in state history. So check them out too; you can learn more at www.statelibrary.pa.gov.
- There is a growing digital collection of material from the Archives available via their website. Jonathan encouraged us to be aware that what’s online is the tip of the iceberg; sometimes only a few highlights from a collection might be posted, but much more can be viewed on site. They’re in the process, for instance, of trying to digitize some 30,000 rolls of microfilm!
- One of the neatest projects is the Archives’ collaboration with Ancestry.com to provide free access to Pennsylvania birth and death and other personal history records. The muster roll mentioned above is available, for instance!
- If you’re looking for documents that aren’t online, contact the Archives. The Reference Services group can help you identify what’s there and help you set up a time to see it in person or find other ways to get the info. Their goal, Jonathan said, is “to get people the information they’re looking for,” and to provide context for the documents, which is key to using the information correctly.
Presently, the Archives gets 2,000 to 3,000 visitors and 6,000 to 8,000 emails, letters and calls a year, as well as millions of hits to their online resources. That’s a lot – but I know there are people who aren’t yet tapping this valuable resource, so hopefully it will continue to grow!
I’m so grateful to Jonathan for this opportunity and for all his time spent with us – and for his many years in service of Pennsylvania’s history. Jonathan, thank you so much. I hope retirement treats you well and gives you time to pursue your own research!Have questions or memories to share? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or write to Ask Joan, York Daily Record/Sunday News, 1891 Loucks Road, York PA 17408. We cannot accept any phone calls with questions or information.