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Orange County

Archives' Home May Be History

Government: Neglected since the '94 bankruptcy, O.C.'s records have no true overseer--and now may face eviction from the old courthouse.

July 16, 2001|DAVID REYES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To history buffs, keeping the county's old records safe in an archive and available to the public makes sense. But since the 1994 bankruptcy, the county's historical treasure-trove has been neglected, trapped in political and budgetary limbo.

Barbara Milkovich, a member of the county's Historical Commission, said she gets frustrated and upset talking about the county's archive situation.

"I've been battling this since [the bankruptcy] and it's a tragedy. A major tragedy," Milkovich said. "We have precious records that are not getting proper care, and to make matters worse, we have not collected any new records since 1994, the year of the bankruptcy."

Seemingly out of sight and out of mind, the archives in the basement of the Old County Courthouse in Santa Ana serve as an eyebrow-raising metaphor for the county, Milkovich said. Only Orange County could call itself economically solvent while having an archive without an archivist, according to the commissioner.

"Consider that it was the nation's largest [municipal] bankruptcy, yet not one single document has been added to the archives on the bankruptcy," Milkovich said. "And some of the documents may already have been lost forever by staff and office managers who have no understanding of what needs to be saved.

"This is the whole bankruptcy and this could be the subject of a major project for study later, to help others learn how it developed," she said.

Said Marshall Duell, curator of the Old County Courthouse museum: "It's probably not the ideal archival facility. But it's a great improvement over what they had before, which was a single building off Chestnut Street in Santa Ana."

No One to Care for the Maps, Records, Photos

Old maps, property records and black-and-white photographs depicting the county's transformation from agricultural center to suburbia are housed in the archives, which seem to be the county's best-kept secret.

The archives have always been administered through this or that department, existing on a shoestring budget and with no major plan or goal.

Established in 1983, the archives were administered by the county's General Services Agency and transferred to the county public library two years later.

From 1986 to 1995, the archives were staffed by an archivist and a technician. The archives were moved into a newly renovated facility in the basement of the Old County Courthouse.

But due to the bankruptcy, the library relinquished control of the archives to the county clerk-recorder's office--after Clerk-Recorder Gary L. Granville stepped forward when no one else would.

"In the first seven weeks of the bankruptcy, the county pulled the people from the archives and they asked me if we could attend to it," Granville said. "Of course, we didn't have the staff or the expertise."

Granville assigned one of his staff to open the archives for researchers during limited hours and by appointment. Hiring a bona fide archivist was out of the question, he said.

"We've never had any budget for it," Granville said. "I brought it up during budget talks over the last two years. I said, 'Put it someplace else. Find another department.' "

But his pleas fell on deaf ears. Now, the office of protocol, which hosts industry leaders, dignitaries and VIPs--often from other countries--wants to move into the archives' space.

"There has been a threat to move them, and we fought it long and hard," said Historical Commission member Esther Cramer, who expressed frustration with what she called the county's "low priority" for preserving its history.

"We all understood that when the bankruptcy came, that losing the archivists and limiting its hours were only temporary and the doors would be reopened soon."

No Money and Maybe a Notice to Move Out

During recent budget talks, commission members like Cramer and Milkovich tried to lobby county supervisors. "There isn't anyone we didn't see," Milkovich said.

Supervisor Chuck Smith, whose district includes Santa Ana and the old courthouse, said he supports having an archive program but added that the county doesn't have enough money to jump-start one.

In the meantime, Smith said he favors moving the archives from the old courthouse and allowing the protocol office to move in. Protocol now is in an office off the main lobby of the county Hall of Administration.

"We have put money into the county's protocol office because they host a lot of visitors interested in foreign trade and investment," Smith said. "The old courthouse is the ideal place to greet visiting dignitaries but we have to find a place for the archives."

Smith is hopeful a suitable location will be found. He said some existing records have been transferred to compact discs.

But there is no archivist to monitor which of the county's thousands of documents must be saved, nor is there any publicity or marketing to tell the public about what is stored in the archives.

"I've been trying to do something about the archives but it's just been pushed out of people's minds. . . . It would be a crime to allow valuable records like that to deteriorate," Smith said.

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