Report on the Washington State Archives as an Institution

Man processing archival documents at a desk

Given the closure of the Washington State Archives during the COVID-19 pandemic, I visited its website to learn about the institution's services, facilities, and appraisal practices.

Modeled after the National Archives, the Washington State Archives was created as part of the Office of the Secretary of State to keep track of legal and historical records, centralize them, and make them accessible (Office of Secretary of State, 2011). The office’s mission includes safeguarding government records, documents, publications, and process (Office of Secretary of State, n.d). The Archives and Records Management Division includes the Archives; a Records Center that stores agencies’ documents; and Imaging Services, which converts microfilm and paper documents to digital images and converts digital images to security microfilm for permanent storage (Washington State Archives, n.d.d).

The Archives includes the State Archives on the Capitol Campus in Olympia; five regional branches; and the Digital Archives. The state archivist chairs the Washington State Historical Records Advisory Board, created in 1976 to comply with federal legislation. The board is a leader in supporting repositories statewide to properly preserve and ensure access to the state’s historical records (Washington State Historical Records Advisory Board, n.d., p. 1-2).

Providing public access to the archival records it holds is the Archives’ top priority and a requirement of the Revised Code of Washington (Washington State Legislature, n.d). Its current administrative structure dates back to the 1950s (Washington State Legislature, 1957). The Olympia facility holds the State Records Collections, including the papers of governors, courts, state agencies, the legislature, laws, and election results (Washington State Archives, n.d.f). This includes territorial court records from the early years of European settlement, before Washington was a state (Washington State Archives, n.d.c). It also holds some published materials, including federal publications and microfilm reels of newspapers. Each branch holds archives for local governments in its region of the state, including school districts, auditors, and city and county councils. The Digital Archives provides digital access to many of the records held by regional branches and corporate archives, such as historical photographs, as well as recordings of meetings, vital records, and corporation records. It has preserved 228,212,966 records, of which 75,209,177 are searchable as of May 23, 2020.

Facilities and services

The Olympia facility is three stories underground and was designed in 1962 as a bomb shelter with space for important records (Secretary of State, 2011). Since 2005, it has been at capacity, leading the state to store historical records in the off-site Records Center, where temperature and humidity controls are insufficient for preservation (Secretary of State, 2014). In 2019, the state legislature approved a new facility for the State Library and Archives, to be built in nearby Tumwater (Secretary of State, 2019). 

Each region allows members of the public to search its holdings online, using a keyword search or browsing through record group, subgroup, and record series. For each series, one can view the dates, volumes, restrictions to access, and a description, and select the series to “request information.” This option allows a visitor to submit a research request to the branch, who will follow up to arrange a way to make the information available, such as an in-person visit. Documents in the records series include school census records, court dockets, maps, plats, and more. Staff may charge a small fee for research services, such as extracting, assembling or reporting on data (Washington State Archives, 2018b).

Regional facilities are in Ellensburg, Cheney, Bellingham, Bellevue and Olympia. The first three are located at universities, and the Southwest branch is co-located with the State Archives. The Southwest branch is open to the public (under normal circumstances) Monday–Friday. Others are accessible to the public for in-person research on Wednesday–Friday by appointment only, and Monday–Friday for phone and email requests. When visiting any facility for research purposes, members of the public must place their personal items in a locker, and are allowed to photocopy the records they view (Secretary of State, 2011).

The Digital Archives provides around-the-clock, global access to its holdings. Visitors can search by first name, last name, and keyword within a collection or across all holdings. Together with the State Library, the Archives provides guidance on where to look for genealogical records. Local governments and state agencies are able to transfer original file formats to the Digital Archives, who take responsibility for migrating records to formats appropriate for retention and preservation while maintaining metadata (Washington State Archives, 2018c).

The Digital Archives boasts a state-of-the-art building that opened in 2004 (Washington State Archives, n.d.a). The facility features two classrooms, a multimedia presentation classroom, and the Legacy Museum and Lab, which includes exhibits of historic computers and serves as a lab for migrating data from older technologies to more usable formats. Use of the classrooms and data conversion services are available to the public for a small fee (Washington State Archives, n.d.b).

Records, archives, and appraisal 

The Archives and Records Management Division reflects a Schellenbergian conception of records and archives. Documents stored in the Records Center remain in the legal custody of the originating agency, which continues to control access, public records requests, and records selection. This indicates that records are being held for the purpose of government accomplishing its work. Schellenberg (1965) distinguishes between such records and “archives,”: [Records] must be preserved for another reason to be archives, and this reason is a cultural one (p. 14). When the retention period ends, records are shredded, unless they were designated “archival” due to possessing “enduring legal and/or historic value,” in which case they are transferred to the State Archives. At this point, archivists decide whether to preserve them permanently (Washington State Archives, n.d.e). This manner of records scheduling reflects Schellenberg’s idea of joint appraisal, as described by Tschan (2002, p. 194). 

The Archives’ appraisal process includes evaluating, sampling, and weeding of some public records based on informational value. For example, within the Department of Ecology’s records, those documenting specific industrial facility sites are kept in the Records Center for 25 years after a site closes, at which time they are transferred for archival appraisal (Washington State Archives, 2018a, p. 40). Presumably at this time, an archivist could evaluate whether a site posed enduring ecological threats, and if so, could choose which records held appropriate informational value to the future to justify permanent preservation. Others are designated for “permanent retention,” and are not evaluated or weeded, though duplicates are removed. These are preserved for their evidential value in the way Tschan (2002) describes, as they illustrate how agencies have been organized and their patterns of action. For example, Ecology’s Cost-Benefit Analysis and Small Business Economic Impact Statements are transferred after six years for permanent retention, as they show “evidence that the agency practiced due diligence in the drafting process” (Washington State Archives, 2018a, p. 6). 

Some of the local government and state agency fonds in the Digital Archives include records “to present,” such as the City of Bonney Lake Minutes from May 12, 2020. Differences in the date ranges observed across localities suggests that, when it comes to electronic records, the Digital Archives may be practicing a neo-Jenkinsonian approach, with the creator carrying out appraisal (Tschan, 2002, p. 192). 

Reflecting on the experience 

The experience of visiting the Archives online seemed oriented to helping people access records, more so than orienting them to the Archives as an institution. I had to dig around to find out about the Olympia facility and struggled to learn its creation story (and was unable to find it in the digitized records). I anticipate that when the new building opens in the coming years, the web presence will more readily feature the facilities and institution (as is the case with the Digital Archives). 

The Archives’ overall web presence seems oriented toward individual rights and transparency more so than to scholarly research (with the exception of its social media). The website demonstrates extensive support for records managers within government. This shows an emphasis on retrospective understanding for public accountability and individual rights, as Eastwood (2002) describes. When the Archives reopen, I am interested in learning how it interacts with other institutions, such as local special collections, libraries, and private archives. The Northwest branch is co-located with the Center for Pacific Northwest Studies, for example, which is more oriented to scholarly research and archives with cultural value. 

Finally, the National Archives recently announced plans to close its branch in Seattle and move its holdings out of the Northwest. The Secretary of State is hoping to keep some of these federal records within Washington, possibly adjacent to the new Tumwater facility. Among other records, this branch holds tribal treaties relevant to tribes in the Northwest (Seattle Times Editorial Board, 2020). I am interested in following this issue to learn how the State Archives is able to support access for documents that are critical to communities within the State, but that are outside of its mandate.


Eastwood, T. (2002). Reflections on the goal of archival appraisal in democratic societies. Archivaria, 54: 59-71.

General Subjects Photograph Collection, 1845-2005. (1975-1985). “David Hastings.” Washington State Archives, Digital Archives,

Office of Secretary of State. (2011, August 29). Washington State Archives 101 [Video]. Youtube.

Office of Secretary of State. (2014, April 23). Moving forward at State Archives & Library 21 [Video]. Youtube.

Office of Secretary of State. (2019, May 21). State’s new library-archives building will move forward as planned.

Office of Secretary of State. (n.d.). About the office.

Schellenberg, T.R. (1975). Nature of Archives. Modern Archives: Principles and Techniques 1956. Chicago, Society of American Archivists, 11-16.

Seattle Times Editorial Board. (2020, March 8). “State should help save Washington’s National Archives access.” The Seattle Times.

Tschan, R. (2002). A comparison of Jenkinson and Schellenberg on appraisal. The American Archivist, 65: 176-195.

Washington State Archives. (2018a, April). Department of Ecology records retention schedule.

Washington State Archives. (2018b, January 29). Reproduction services and cost recovery.

Washington State Archives. (2018c, August). Keep electronic records in electronic format.

Washington State Archives. (n.d.a). Background and history. Digital Archives.

Washington State Archives. (n.d.b). Facilities and resources. Digital Archives.

Washington State Archives. (n.d.c). Frontier justice: Guides to the District Court records of Washington Territory.

Washington State Archives. (n.d.d). Imaging.

Washington State Archives. (n.d.e). Records center.

Washington State Archives. (n.d.f) State government.

Washington State Historical Records Advisory Board. (n.d.). Strategic plan.

Washington State Legislature. (1957). Public records -- State archives. Session Laws, 1957, HB 220, Chapter 246.§%202.

Washington State Legislature. (n.d.) Preservation and destruction of public records. Revised Code of Washington, chapter 40.14.

Share this learning activity with others