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State officials tried, and failed, to fix archives a decade ago

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BOSTON (WPRI) – Michael Comeau feels bad for his counterpart in Rhode Island.

As the executive director of the Massachusetts Archives – a fortress of a building specially built to securely store and display historic records – Comeau listened to the conditions of the Rhode Island archives and shook his head.

“It sounds far less than ideal,” he said. “Clearly it’s going to raise red flags.”

Less than ideal may be an understatement.

A Target 12 investigation revealed Rhode Island is the only state in the nation without a permanent location for its most valued historical records, the vast majority of which are stored in a flood-prone basement with six sump pumps working around the clock in a constant battle against rising water.

“The permanent public records of the state of Rhode Island, as here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, are essential materials,” Comeau said. “They are our cultural heritage, they our shared memory, our collective identity and they should never receive short shrift for any purpose.”

In Massachusetts, they don’t. The state archives – a massive 100,000-square-foot building located in the shadow of the John F. Kennedy Museum and the University of Massachusetts Boston – boasts 30,000 cubic feet of secure storage areas, including 10 vaults.

“There are fire suppression systems that are appropriate and consistent to the long-term preservation of our archival collections, temperature systems where we control the humidity levels and we control the temperature levels,” Comeau said. “That’s a 24/7 system here on site at the state archives and we have a backup generator to make sure that the system is never interrupted for any purpose.”

The Massachusetts Archives facility was opened to the public in 1986, according to its website, and “was designed to resemble the early forts on the surrounding shoreline.”

“The building is equipped with computer-monitored climate control systems, fire detection and suppression systems, twenty-four-hour security, a photo lab, eight paper storage vaults, an artifact storage vault, a microfilm vault, and a conservation laboratory,” the website states.

In contrast, Rhode Island has a single vault stuffed to the ceiling with what Gwenn Stearn, the state archivist for the Ocean State, deems to be the most important materials. The rest must be placed in the basement that is peppered with monitors poised to alert an outside company if water is detected.

Taxpayers currently pay $248,000 a year in rent to Paolino Properties – owned by former Providence Mayor Joseph Paolino Jr. – to use the space, located at 337 Westminster St. in Providence. It was a temporary solution that has turned into a quarter-century of rental payments totaling more than $5.4 million, according to records.

In 2004 Rhode Island attempted to fix the situation by moving both the state and judicial archives into the massive Cranston Street Armory in Providence.

The issue was placed on the ballot to approve a bond for $12.3 million, but voters rejected the referendum by a 2-to-1 vote.

“I know the professionals in Rhode Island – the state archivist and the archival staff – are passionate professionals that are doing everything that possibly can,” Comeau said. “My advice to the people who can help them is understand the priority, understand the importance of what you’re doing and give them what the need.”

Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea says she’s making the situation a priority and is in the process of assembling a workgroup to come up with a solution to the problem. Tim White( twhite@wpri.com ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter: @TimWhiteRI

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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