NEA taking the past into the future

More on the State Historical Society of Iowa

2015-04-06 10:19 AM | Michelle Romero

Dear NEA membership - 

Last week, a message was relayed concerning the issues surrounding the State Historical Society of Iowa, with a link to a petition started by the Save Iowa History Coalition.  The message also stated that NEA sent a letter to the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs in support of that repository and our fellow librarians and archivists employed there.  NEA received a letter back from the State Archivist of Iowa which was included in that message. 

Today, NEA received a letter from the Save Iowa History Coalition in rebuttal to that posted by the State Archivist of Iowa.  This letter can be found, in full, below this message and will be posted to our website shortly.   

I encourage our membership, via the NEA listserv and social media, to discuss this matter and how best we can advocate for the archival collections in Iowa.  

- Colin


April 3, 2015 

Dear members of the New England Archivists,

On behalf of the Save Iowa History Coalition, this letter is in response to Iowa State Archivist Anthony Jahn’s message to your organization, posted on your website on April 1, in which he comments on the “Save Iowa History” online petition.  This petition currently has gathered 2,670 signatures.

Mr. Jahn disagrees with the petition’s insistence that reduced funding has created a crisis for research collections at the State Historical Society of Iowa (SHSI).  It is encouraging to learn that the SHSI will not have its overall budget cut in FY 2015 or FY 2016.  But the fact remains that resources allocated to the research collections have been drastically reduced at both the Des Moines and Iowa City SHSI libraries and archives.  Signs indicate further reductions and ultimately the tragic closure of the Iowa City facility.

Appropriations from the General Fund for the Historical Division of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA), which oversees the SHSI, fell from $3,796,919 in FY 2009 to $2,767,701 in FY 2013, a decline of 27 percent.  The appropriation for FY 2014 increased to $3,167,701, but this was for “enhanced museum exhibits and additional staffing,” according to Iowa’s Democratic Senate Staff.  The DCA has continued to starve the research collections.  The Iowa City library and archives dropped from seven full-time employees in FY 2012 to three as of July 1, 2015 (only two of those will be professional staff).  Hours for researchers have been reduced to three days a week, Thursday-Saturday.  There is no support staff beyond a group of dedicated volunteers.  The SHSI libraries and archives are being defunded, and access to Iowa history for citizens, students, and scholars is being restricted.  This alarms us.

Mr. Jahn’s assertion that the collections are not “under any physical threat” is incorrect.  Spending on preserving, processing, and curating records has dwindled.  For many decades, part of the library budget went to newspaper preservation, with about $30,000 annually covering microfilming.  In 2009, the DCA ended this 50-year practice, and now the budget for preserving newspapers is zero.  Meanwhile, the budget for acquiring new materials peaked in the early 2000s at $82,000 per year and then fell off until it was eliminated in 2009.  The Iowa City Centennial Building, which houses some of the most valuable historical materials in the state, can barely open its doors to operate, let alone manage the collections with the attention and care required of a professional library or archival service.

Fragile materials are endangered.  There is no funding to have a paper conservator stabilize documents.  Requests to bind books have been ignored.  Microfilm that is deteriorating due to acid problems cannot be treated.  The reduction of public service hours has forced the closing of the Special Collections reading room on the second floor of the Centennial Building, which for forty years provided additional security for rare archival materials.  Retrieval times are limited, and all materials now must be examined in the downstairs library.  Not only is this a disservice to researchers, it also places these materials at risk.

SHSI library and archives collections are frozen in 2009.  There is a moratorium on acquisitions.  Subscriptions have lapsed, and there are no plans to renew them.  The SHSI may even discontinue its subscription to the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC), which is used by nearly every reputable library and archive in the world and links the SHSI collections to the University of Iowa’s online catalog, in favor of an impractical plan to develop a collection management system of its own.  The OCLC is an indispensable source of reliable bibliographic and catalog records.  It is essential to a library’s inventory control system, helping to describe and track holdings and making possible the lending and borrowing of microfilm.  Taking the SHSI libraries out of the OCLC system will gut the SHSI’s professional reputation as a serious research library.

The DCA and State Archivist assert that their assessment is ongoing and that no decisions about the SHSI collections have been made.  The DCA, however, is already in the process of hiring a construction manager for the renovation of the Iowa State Historical Building in Des Moines.  The proposal to invest $93 million in this project is not reassuring unless it comes with a guarantee about preserving and ensuring access to collections and resuming acquisition of new materials.  Mr. Jahn claims that 35 percent, or $32 million, of the total $93 million investment “will address long overdue collection needs.”  But those numbers are contradicted by the DCA’s “State Historical Building Capital Project – DRAFT Milestone Schedule” of February 10, 2015, which allocates only $7.5 million, or 8 percent, to “Collections Processing, Digitization, Move & Rehousing.”  Not only is this a tiny percentage for collections overall, but it also appears that the money will be used primarily for downsizing, removing, and digitizing them. 

Reports by the DCA’s consultant provide further evidence of such a plan.  The April 2012 “Facility Strategy” for the Des Moines building, prepared by the Canadian consulting firm Lord Cultural Resources, calls for reducing collections storage, expanding exhibit and program space, and providing “outdoor areas for gathering and organizing groups in order to leverage views of the Capitol” (p. 16).  Renovation for such areas would be on the east side of the building, and may require, as a July 2014 engineering and architecture report notes, demolishing the East Wing, where the archival collections currently reside.

The 2012 Lord report disconcertingly recommends “considering changes to collecting mandates and scopes and de-accessioning items that are not in line with the collecting strategy” (p. 12).  The same firm’s June 2014 “Research Report” for the DCA mentions libraries and archives only in passing, as “ancillary” to the SHSI (pp. 3, 71, 165).  The library and archival collections are not ancillary; they have been the heart of the SHSI mission since 1857.  The report recommends a “downward streamlining” of the “State Archives program,” referring to both the State Archives and the SHSI libraries and archives.  It also urges elimination of “any duplication of efforts by consolidating the two research centers of the state library collection, thereby freeing staff, resources, and space for other program needs, such as building a website with services that the public can use at any time” (p. 190).   

Although digitizing some library materials and posting them to a website is desirable, it would be prohibitively expensive to digitize more than a fraction of the SHSI collections.  Furthermore, the nuances related to individual sources and their organization are lost in digitization; digital access is fine for some purposes, but researchers require physical access to materials and the assistance of trained archivists.  Notably, Lord Cultural Resources’ 37-member team includes not a single person with archival training; two have advanced degrees in history, but the rest are museum planners, architects, “cultural engineers,” interpretive planners, and visual artists (per Lord Cultural Resources website).  

Taken together, the shocking neglect of collections, the proposal for an expensive remodeling of the Des Moines building with few resources devoted to those collections, and Lord Cultural Resource’s short-sighted recommendations justify our fears for the future of SHSI’s libraries and archives in Des Moines and in Iowa City.  We hope that the DCA will change course to place a high priority on all SHSI and Iowa State Archives collections and to keep both SHSI research centers fully open, sufficiently staffed, and their preservation needs and efforts appropriately funded.

Save Iowa History Coalition

Tyler Priest, Associate Professor of History, University of Iowa (UI)

Douglas Baynton, Associate Professor of History, UI

Mériam Belli, Associate Professor of History, UI

Jeffrey L. Cox, Professor of History, UI

James L. Giblin, Professor of History, UI

Michel Gobat, Associate Professor of History, UI

Colin Gordon, Professor of History, UI

Paul R. Greenough, Professor of History, UI

Elizabeth Heineman, Professor and Chair of History, UI

Michaela Hoenicke-Moore, Associate Professor of History, UI

Linda K. Kerber, May Brodbeck Professor in the Liberal Arts and Professor of
            History Emerita, UI

Catherine Komisaruk, Associate Professor of History, UI

Tom Arne Mitrød, Associate Professor of History, UI

Michael E. Moore, Associate Professor of History, UI

H. Glenn Penny, Professor of History, UI

Jacki Thompson Rand, Associate Professor of History, UI

Leslie A. Schwalm, Professor of History, UI

Jennifer Sessions, Associate Professor of History, UI

Landon Storrs, Professor of History, UI

Allen Steinberg, Emeritus Associate Professor of History, UI

H. Shelton Stromquist, Emeritus Professor of History, UI

Katherine H. Tachau, Professor of History, UI

Omar Valerio-Jiménez, Associate Professor of History, UI

Stephen Warren, Associate Professor of History, UI 


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