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Inside the new, drier home for RI’s historic documents

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Thousands of historic documents chronicling the history of Rhode Island are now on higher ground.

The Rhode Island State Archives used to be housed in a rented Westminster Street building in Providence that was located in a flood zone, with sump pumps running around the clock in a constant battle against rising water.

Last year, a specialized moving company carefully relocated the content of the state archives less than a quarter of a mile away, to a building at 33 Broad St. But the journey continued up a hill to a higher elevation.

“We’re not in a flood zone,” said R.I. Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, who made moving the archives a top priority when she took office in 2015. “That was a huge improvement. It also gave us the opportunity to provide climate control that the other space was never going to allow.”

The new location has a climate-controlled 5,070-square-foot vault to ensure historic documents have as long a shelf life as possible. The floor of the vault was sealed with a polymer to block moisture from seeping in. 

The cost to retrofit the space was roughly $900,000, but that is being folded into the monthly rent of $23,000 (up from $21,000 at the old location). Both the Broad Street building and the one on Westminster are owned by former Providence Mayor Joseph Paolino Jr.

“These are really challenging times right now, and in our vault and in our records are stories of other challenging times and how other Rhode Islanders dealt with those times,” Gorbea said. “It’s worth safe keeping.”

The new home for the archives was the site of the old Johnson and Wales University bookstore, according to Gorbea. Including the vault, it has just over 11,000 square feet of space. Right now visitors who want to visit the archives to conduct research need to make an appointment by calling 401-222-2353 or emailing statearchives@sos.ri.gov. But Gorbea hopes that soon changes.

“It provides us a lot more space to have school kids come and visit with these amazing collections we have here,” she said.

RI State Archives | 33 Broad St., Providence

Some of the newest entries into the archives won’t be physically located in the building, however: digital media. More and more public records are being generated in digital formats, including social media accounts of elected officials.

During the pandemic, Gov. Gina Raimondo used platforms like Twitter to communicate with the public. R.I. State Archivist Ashley Selima said that people “don’t realize that it is also a public record.”

“Social media is a new animal,” Selima said. “We’re preserving the story of what’s happening and part of that is how these records are used, who uses them and how they responded to.”

One of the challenges with digital records, as opposed to traditional paper format, is platforms constantly change — meaning a record that is readable now could be unreadable in only a decade.

“Paper is still the most stable medium. You can keep a piece of paper in a stable environment file for up to 500 years and we know that,” Selima said. “Whereas digital media continuously makes itself go obsolete.”

Selima said the company the secretary of state’s office contracts with works to keep the media readable as platforms change. And sometimes, printing is best.

She said they are currently waiting for the final export of records from the Raimondo administration, and she estimates it will be approximately 10 terabytes of data – more than doubling the current amount of digital records they have.

“That’s a lot of data,” Selima said. “We have the systems in place to keep it digital but if there are things that are very clearly of public import or public interest those maybe things we may print in file if they are not already.”

The state pays about $24,000 a year to contract with a digital storage company. Selima said one of the servers is in another part of the country, with a backup in Canada.

Staff members have also put a lot of energy into uploading analog material to the archive’s website so people can virtually comb through material.

Gorbea said officials identify significant historic records to prioritize them for uploading, as well as information people request to spare them having to come in during the pandemic.

“When I first started as secretary of state the archives were just not available online,” Gorbea said. “We really made a push to make sure that documents were available. If you were looking for something you needed online we worked on it to get it to you that way, because if you need it probably someone else needs it as well.”

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 managing editor and chief investigative reporter at 12 News, and the host of Newsmakers. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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