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State Archives Clogged With Gubernatorial Records and No Culling Allowed

| August 1, 2014
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Gov. Pete Wilson’s records are stored in more than 3,700 boxes in a climate-controlled Sacramento warehouse. (Scott Detrow/KQED)

Gov. Pete Wilson’s records are stored in more than 3,700 boxes in a climate-controlled Sacramento warehouse. (Robin Simmonds/KQED)

When he was governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger loved to talk about boxes. “Every governor proposes moving boxes around to reorganize government. I don’t want to move boxes around. I want to blow them up,” he said in his 2004 State of the State address.

But now, state archivists are moving around thousands of Schwarzenegger’s boxes — 3,871 of them, to be exact. That’s how much space the Schwarzenegger administration’s records take up at the California State Archives in Sacramento. And he’s not alone. Beginning with Gov. Pete Wilson, the state became the chief custodian of gubernatorial records. California’s last three governors created so much paperwork that these boxes now fill up 10 percent of California’s entire archival warehouse.

The problem, from archivists’ point of view, is that they’re not allowed to cull a single piece of paper. The quarter-century-old law sending gubernatorial records to the state requires storage of every single item that outgoing governors turn over, no matter how odd or irrelevant it may be.

“With the Schwarzenegger records, in with constituent correspondence, I believe it was, we found a full bottle of motor oil,” said  Nancy Lenoil, the state’s chief archivist. “Someone was protesting, I think it had to do with offshore drilling, and they sent him a bottle of motor oil.”

 Into the archives it went.

State archivist Nancy Lenoil looks through some of Governor Pete Wilson’s records. (Scott Detrow/KQED)

State archivist Nancy Lenoil looks through some of Governor Pete Wilson’s records. (Robin Simmonds/KQED)

The requirement creates a flood of paperwork. Standing in the climate-controlled room containing rows and rows of records from Wilson’s administration, Lenoil pointed out that archivists cull and trim records from every other state agency. They remove items that don’t have what she called “archival value” and, as a result, the archives end up with about 4,000 cubic feet of new records every year. But “when you talk about a governor leaving office,” she said,  “we take in about 4,000 cubic feet, perhaps in three days.”

A bill in front of the Assembly would allow Lenoil and her team to begin weeding out gubernatorial records, too. It was introduced by state Sen. Carol Liu, at Secretary of State Deborah Bowen’s request. The measure sailed through the Senate on unanimous votes, and is expected to end up on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk by month’s end.

 Couldn’t this trimming weed out important documents? Lenoil said the state would keep everything that has what she called “archival value.”

“If you look at something like office supply orders — how many reams of paper did they order? Ask the question, would someone doing research need to know in 15, 20, 25 or 50 years, how many cases of paper they ordered? That doesn’t have the enduring value we call archival value.”

That sort of management reduced the records of Gov. Earl Warren — a major historical figure and, up until this year, the longest-serving governor in California history — to about 600 cubic feet. Pete Wilson’s records take up 3,728 cubic feet.

 Most other states already do this.

 As things stand now, California’s archives could run out of space in as little as four years. Lenoil said she isn’t sure how much space the change could clear up, but points out constituent letters alone take up more than 3,000 cubic feet of the Schwarzenegger administration’s records. Clearing those out and keeping a “representative sample,” she said, would create nearly a year’s worth of new storage.

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About the Author ()

Sacramento bureau chief Scott Detrow covers state government, politics and policy for KQED News and its statewide news program, The California Report. Before joining KQED, Scott reported on Pennsylvania's natural gas drilling boom for NPR's StateImpact project. Reach Scott Detrow at sdetrow@kqed.org.

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