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Sonoma County history imperiled

Sonoma County history imperiled

By Carol B. Eber, Guest Editor

Genealogist? Historian? Educator? Library patron? I suppose I am all of these. My great great grandfather, Mark West, and his wife, Guadalupe Vasquez, came to Sonoma County from Monterey in 1840 when they received a land grant here. When I began my genealogy research, the Sonoma County Library’s History and Genealogy Division provided valuable guidance for finding historical records about this branch of my family. Some of these records were located in the County Archives at Los Guilicos, one of the four Special Collections of the library. Most of these records were not digitized, but I was able to see and photograph some original documents once they were brought to the Central Library. Having been a high school history teacher for many years, I have to say it is a special moment when you see an original piece of family and local history such as a marriage certificate, a court record, or a map.

My connection to local history and my concern about preserving it inspired me to join the Advocates for Sonoma County Archives (ASCA). (https://www.socoarchives. org). The wildfires that swept through our county have endangered our historical records that are stored at Los Guilicos. Twice the fires came close to destroying the building that houses our local history. How could we let that happen? ASCA is a group of volunteers with the goal of protecting and preserving these historical records. The wildfire threats moved us to organize for action. Now just follow the timeline to dig a little deeper – 2017 to 2021. Four years!

The March 2017 Library Facilities Plan rated the condition of this facility as the worst among the library’s fifteen properties. An upgrade was designated a high priority. The plan recommended investigating alternative locations to house the County Archives. In October 2017 the wildfires came within 400 feet of the County Archives still housed at Los Guilicos. The fires imperiled our community too.

2018 was a lost year. November 2018, one and a half years after the Tubbs and Nuns Fires, the California Preservation Program presented a needs assessment to the Library Commission regarding the County Archives at Los Guilicos. The report cited the danger to the building and a lack environmental controls and security systems.

In March 2019 an Archives Space Plan was prepared by History Associates and presented to the Library Commission. The consultants determined that the location at Los Guilicos is not sufficient for continued long-term storage of archival material due to its lack of accessibility, security, and environmental control. History Associates recommended relocating the majority of material to the Central Library basement as a temporary storage solution and safe haven from fires until a suitable permanent location could be identified. A comprehensive inventory of the collection was also recommended. But neither of these actions was undertaken. 2019 was a lost year. 2020 was another lost year for the County Archives. In March 2020 funds for an inventory ($137,000) that had been allocated by the Library Commission were frozen indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so no inventory was conducted and there was no relocation of the Sonoma County Archives. Then in September 2020, the Glass Fire swept over the area of Los Guilicos, destroying much of the surrounding property.

And now we are in April 2021. At the March 2021 meeting the Library Commission was informed that an inventory is taking place and there are discussions about a possible relocation. The commission is questioning the “ownership” and responsibility for this special collection, although a 1965 Joint Powers Agreement among cities and the county clearly designated the County Library as the custodian of the County Archives. The Library Commission also claims to lack funds to relocate the archives despite the fact that there is $11 million in reserve from Measure Y that can be used for maintaining facilities.

Currently there are banners throughout the county warning us to “harden our places against fires.” According to the director of San Jose State’s Fire Weather Research Laboratory, “We could have more intense fires earlier in the season.” But the Archives Committee of the Library Commission says a goal of September might be feasible for an inventory and there is no plan to relocate the collection to a safe, temporary site. Of course, September puts us right in the 2021 wildfire season, and once more facing the threat of destruction. The Sonoma County Archives must be relocated immediately to a temporary site to protect them from the approaching fire season. Then a thorough inventory can be conducted, and a permanent location can be found. There must be improved management and access to the County Archives, which is a special collection of the Sonoma County Library and contains many original and irreplaceable documents. The Sonoma County Library Commission and your city officials, who appoint the Commission members, must hear from you. It is time to act. It is time to raise our voices.

Records of county school districts, court cases, licenses. Note the unsuitable placement of some of the records

Photo by Katherine Rinehart