Thronateeska Heritage Center Executive Director Tommy Gregors says these perforated racks inside Thronateeska’s new archives building will be used to hold boxes of important city, county and heritage society documents as part of the organization’s archiving project. (Staff Photo: Brad McEwen)
ALBANY — Soon researchers and individuals wanting to view important documents from Albany’s past — including past meeting minutes, resolutions and ordinances from the city of Albany — will be able to do so at Thronateeska Heritage Center’s new archives building located in downtown Albany.
The recently constructed archive center, which is expected to be open to the public by late spring or early summer, is part of the center’s new archiving project, brought to fruition with funds generated by a special-purpose local-option sales tax (SPLOST) passed by Dougherty County voters in 2010.
The project, which will include digitally scanning and storing thousands of documents and records belonging to Thronateeska and the city of Albany, will not only preserve and protect historical documents, but will also serve as a new revenue stream for the local non-profit, according to Thronateeska Executive Director Tommy Gregors.
“It gives us a stable source of income that we normally wouldn’t have had coming in,” Gregors said. “Where we’re different than some of the other attractions in town, through this archive work, we’re able to sell our mission and make money off the mission, not just wait for somebody to come tour the facility. So, it’s a service related to our mission that somebody needs, particularly the city government or local government and they have to pay somebody to do it, so they might as well pay us to do it.”
In fact, it was the need of one such government entity that led to the creation of the archiving project. Gregors said a chance conversation he had four years ago with Albany City Clerk Sonya Tolbert about the city’s need to have its documents archived and maintained, led to Thronatesska getting involved and subsequently winning a contract to handle the city’s archiving needs.
“An opportunity presented itself over at the city, where the city was looking for somebody to scan all their permanent records, all the meeting minutes, ordinances, resolutions that they have to maintain permanently as a record of the city government,” Gregors said. “I happened to be over there one day looking through some old books and talking to Sonya Tolbert, and she was talking about getting this work done and I said, ‘Well what do we need?’ and we sort of got into figuring out what we needed, the software and the technology and everything. They allowed us to put in a proposal and we picked up that business here.”
As Gregors tells it the city’s need coincided with Thronateeska’s need, leading to the organization being able to put an item on the SPLOST referendum that allowed the group to build a new archive building, retrofit an existing building adjacent to the new archive and purchase computers, scanners and software to handle a large-scale archiving operation.
The new building, which is connected to a historic home located at Thronateeska next to the Wetherbee Planatarium, will house a workroom/office, a staging area and a 7,000-square-foot climate controlled warehouse area for storing boxes of documents.
In addition to storing documents, the other major piece of the $2.1 million project is the actual digitizing of important public records, that will make them easily found by anyone interested in taking the time to search the database.
“Many of these, particularly on the city and county side, are open public records,” said Gregors. “Minutes, ordinances, resolutions should be available to anybody any time and this will be a facility where they will be, all the way back into the 1800s.”
With the addition of the archiving space, the historic home will now serve a dual purpose providing administrative space for Thronateeska, as well as a research room where citizens and researchers can access a computer database containing the digitized material.
“Our admin offices will be open Monday through Friday 8 to 5, so we just have to work out the process of when it’s available to the public based on need and demand,” said Gregors. “We’ll have some tables and terminals set up here so that you can request documents, much like the state archives. The rest of it is secure and climate controlled.”
Gregors said that the new archiving project required Thronateeska to train its current staff on archiving techniques, as well as create new positions within the organization dedicated exclusively to the archives, such as an archives director. In all, Thronateeska has added four full-time staff positions and one part-time position to handle the archive work.
“What we’ve had here, we had a lot of artifacts and records within our collection and it’s always been part of somebody else’s job (to maintain them),” said Gregors. “No group of people has been dedicated to caring for our own collection of items. So now we have a group, while they are also doing our contract work, can take care of our items too and make sure they’re properly cared for and inventoried.”
To get the new group up to speed, Gregors said the organization has been working closely with the state archives and with other museum groups to gain training and expertise. Gregors also said that through those partnerships the new archive will be recognized by the state, provided the organization can meet certain requirements for how the documents are handled.
“We work with the state archives,” said Gregors. “What we have to do to be recognized at the state level is be able to maintain the temperature in (the warehouse) less than 70 degrees and less than 50 percent relative humidity. We’ve got data loggers that will monitor everything in here. We’ll be tracking it daily, weekly, monthly and show trends of where we can keep our temperature and humidity to make sure that it meets the standards. The whole system is designed to handle that.”
Gregors said in addition to the climate control measures in the warehouse, documents also have to be stored in acid-free boxes and some items within the boxes will be held in velum sleeves to protect their integrity.
The warehouse will even have a special section, with added security, for housing the rarest documents kept at the facility.
“In some of our collection we’ve got some rare book items or some journals where there’s only one copy of it, there’s not another one,” Gregors said. “Most of those we’ll scan so you’ll be able to search it electronically. It would be rare to have to bring that (item) out.
“Some of the older ordinances and resolutions, and one of the reasons the city had some urgency when dealing with some of these, in time they crumble and so they had a lot of those we were having to get to before they are completely gone. We had many that were just in pieces and many that we had to hydrate before we could actually open them back up and scan them. Once they’re scanned that’s really the last time they can be handled.”
Gregors said with the top priority being the city, that’s where most of the early focus has been on scanning and storing documents. But the organization hopes to branch out and provide archiving and document storage for others as well.
In fact, the organization has already agreed to handle document storage for Dougherty County and has had inquiries from surrounding communities about utilizing the service. That will continue to generate increased revenue for Thronateeska, which will help to manage the nearly $200,000 budget impact the new archive project will create annually.
“Some of the smaller communities cannot afford to invest in this software and technology, even though they have the same rules about information that apply to them from a state level,” Gregors said. “They don’t have the funds do this so they do the best they can do. Through our facility, we can spread that overhead out across many clients. We can adjust our services to what they can afford to do.
“Some just need storage for their permanent records cause they don’t have a place to store it; some want them scanned, so we can do that. Some want the whole records management from beginning to end, so we can do that. We’re in a position where we can adapt it to what they need.”
Now that the building and renovations to the existing structures are complete, the organization can now focus on finishing up the moving and scanning process, in hopes of being open to the public in the near future.
No date has been set for a grand opening since Gregors wants to be sure the project is complete and things are ready, noting that it’s important for the organization to take it’s time to do things right.
“We’ll have some sort of a ribbon cutting or official opening, but on those I typically wait until everything is where we want it,” Gregors said. “I don’t want to have to delay it because of reasons that are unforeseen, because people remember that. If we say, ‘oh we’re going to open in March’ and then don’t until July, that’s not good.We’d just rather do it when we know we can do it. It’s being able to deliver what we said we can deliver.”