Our History: The Early Years

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Architectural image from 1963 of the proposed State Archives to be built east of the State Historical Society on 603 East South Temple. Photo courtesy of the Utah Division of State History.

The roots of the Utah State Archives and Records Service extend back to the earliest days of state government. The seeds were planted in 1917 when the Utah Legislature passed legislation establishing the Utah State Historical Society as a government agency. The law stipulated that the Historical Society serve as the custodian of all records, documents, relics, and other materials of historic value, which “are now or hereafter may be in charge of any State, county, or other official.” The Historical Society itself had been formed twenty years earlier as part of the 1897 Pioneer Jubilee.

The next step in the evolution of the (future) Utah State Archives came in 1936 when the nationwide Historical Records Survey was created within the federal Works Progress Administration. The intention of this was to inventory and publish a record of the government records found on the federal, state, county, and city level. The Utah State Historical Society took over administration of the Historical Records Survey in 1939 and oversaw its work until the program was shuttered by the federal government in 1943. All of the finished (and unfinished) inventories created as part of the survey became part of the Historical Society’s growing collection.

As the archival profession began to take shape nationally, Utah continued to grow its own state archives program. In 1947, William Palmer (a former member of the Historical Records Survey) was appointed as the first state archivist. Initially Palmer worked with counties in southern Utah before his work was halted on advice from the state Attorney General, who recommended that the Historical Society obtain legislation that mandated archival practice as part of the agency’s authority. Legislation that spelled this out was passed in 1951, and in 1954 the Historical Society received funding that allowed the agency to hire the first “official” state archivist, Dr. Everett Cooley.

The state archives program took its largest steps forward in 1957 with two separate events. The first was the designation of the archives as a division with the Utah State Historical Society as part of the “Historical Society – Powers and Responsibility” act of that year. The second event occurred when the military records section of the National Guard was transferred to the new archives division of the Historical Society. 

In 1960, Dr. Cooley left his role as state archivist to accept a position at the University of Utah, but he returned as director of the Historical Society in 1961. In this position he appointed T. Harold Jacobsen as the next state archivist in 1963. Jacobsen’s training and experience was in the microfilming of records, and under his leadership the archives program began an aggressive campaign to microfilm and preserve the state and local government records of Utah.

In 1966, Governor Calvin Rampton commissioned a study on the reorganization of Utah’s government. It was modeled on the federal Hoover Commission and came to be known as the “Little Hoover Commission.” Among the many recommendations made by that commission was that the state archives program be removed from the Historical Society and made its own independent agency within state government. In spite of the controversy this move engendered (particularly within the Historical Society), the Utah State Legislature moved to act on this recommendation, and in 1969 the Utah State Archives and Records Service was born as a division of government within the Department of Finance.

Tune in next week for the next post in this series which will explore the last 50 years of the Utah State Archives as a distinct agency in Utah government.

SOURCES

Nimer, Cory L. and Daines, J. Gordon III (2012) “The Development and Professionalization of the Utah State Archives, 1897-1968,” Journal of Western Archives: Vol. 3 : Iss. 1, Article 5. 

Johnson, Jeffery O. (1984) “Utah State Archives History,” Mormon Americana: A Guide to Sources and Collections in the United States. Provo: BYU Studies, 1984.

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