Hidden in the state library are two rooms, nearly a block long and half block wide, that look for all the world like that final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark — seemingly endless rows of shelves stacked with everything from legislative and Supreme Court records to governor’s papers and countless boxes of documents covering everything in the state of Nevada’s history.
It’s the Nevada State Archives, a treasure trove for everyone from historical researchers and scholars to political party operatives looking for dirt in the financial filings of their opponents.
Some records, such as the original Nevada State Constitution, are kept in a vault but most of what the Archives has is available for public inspection.
State Archivist Jeff Kintop is preparing for an open house Oct. 26 to celebrate the 50th birthday of the Archives. He said he hopes the birthday celebration introduces more Nevadans to what’s available about Nevada’s history.
The Archives was created in 1965 and placed in the Secretary of State’s Office since the secretary was the state’s official custodian of documents.
But there were no laws or regulations saying what was an historical record, how long records should be kept and nothing mandating they be turned over to archives.
He said it wasn’t even required governors turn over their records when leaving office until Richard Bryan had it put into statute those documents belong to the state, not the individual.
“We ended up getting records after the fact from early governors because they took them with them thinking they were going to use them again,” Kintop said.
He said after Robert List left office and moved to Las Vegas, “he called me up and said Jeff, I have some records in a storage shed I’ve been paying for 20 years. Do you want them?
“I said sure.”
Those records are often revealing, confirming for example while he was governor, Paul Laxalt had sympathetic university officials essentially spy on the University of Nevada, Reno student newspaper in the turbulent 1960s when this reporter worked there.
Archives was moved to the State Library in 1979 but it was now-retired Archivist Guy Rocha and Kintop who brought the division into the modern era and greatly expanded its reach and ability to collect, record and make available all those records. Rocha was hired in 1981, Kintop a couple of years later.
Kintop said they applied for grants and began the process of organizing the rapidly growing collection of historical records when they got their first computers in 1986.
“We build all these databases and, by about 1988, we could actually find things for the first time,” he said. “Before that we were just typing out lists of things in boxes. We used to operate off of memory.”
But they didn’t have a permanent home until 1992 when the State Library building opened.
Now, Kintop said, they have retention schedules spelling out how long different types of records must be kept and when they can be disposed of. Some but not all legal documents must be kept permanently.
“Think of all the lawsuits that get filed against the warden of the prison.”
“We’re looking for things of historical interest,” he said.
In many cases, Kintop said Archives gets records when an administration changes and the new officials don’t want their predecessor’s stuff. They also get records when an agency or one of the other branches of government runs out of space to keep them.
He said the Supreme Court “did a massive transfer in the 1980s,” mostly because they ran out of space for the paper versions and had microfilm versions.
“They just moved (about 50) file cabinets over to the archives.”
Archives has Supreme Court materials from statehood through 1936.
Now, he said the other two branches are working with Archives to organize and make available a long list of materials. They are talking with the Supreme Court, for example, about possibly transferring recorded oral arguments to the Archives.
Kintop said executive branch agencies along with judicial and legislative officials are discovering in many cases, Archives can locate a specific record more quickly than they can.
“It’s all done with barcodes,” he said.
The computer contains a list of what’s in every box in those two huge storage rooms. Each box has a barcode and each shelf has a barcode.
He said using the computer, his staff can quickly locate the right box.
The best thing, he said, is the box doesn’t have to go back where it came from.
“When they put back a box, they scan the box code then scan the shelf code and the computer updates its location,” he said.
He said that system also provides security for valuable and unique records because there are no labels on the boxes.
“Only if they can access the computer can they find anything,” he said.
Kintop said Archives is also expanding public access to all its records, putting more and more collections on the website nsladigitalcollections.org.
All historical Society quarterly magazines are there from 1957 through 2009 and territorial records are there “because I like them.” Children’s home registries back to the 1800s along with Adjutant General’s reports, prison reports, orphanages, the state reformatory records are there. Since Kenny Guinn, Kintop said they have governor’s executive orders, proclamations and press releases. The goal is to make everything on the website searchable.
“We’re working on it,” he said.
One of the new collections they put up is land patent records. He said when construction begins to boom, title companies begin calling to track the official title of parcels of property. They put them on line in April and already had more than 3,300 hits on them.
“Those are inquiries we don’t have to answer,” he said.
And as election season approaches, he said they will get requests for financial disclosure and other records on numerous candidates. He said a big one was in Sen. Harry Reid’s last campaign against Sharron Angle when the opposition wanted his reports back to his first elective post in the Nevada Assembly.
Record systems have changed dramatically over the years and he said they’re still changing. Some of the biggest changes came in the early 1900s. He pulled out a huge, handwritten, bound edition of the 1913 Laws of Nevada. Next, he grabbed a much smaller 1915 edition.
“They finally got a typewriter,” he said.
But things are still changing. They’ve gone through several different word processing and other computer programs and sometimes still get old records the new programs won’t read.
But much more is going electronic, although he still encourages microfilming of records as a backup in case of computer problems.
And they still get surprises. He said one day, an NDOT truck pulled up and turned over a wooden cabinet containing dozens of 8x10 glass photo negatives dating to the 1920s and before. They are now working to identify and date those photos and looking for someone able to print them.
As a note, Kintop said they are in the process of microfilming all Nevada newspapers back to the 1860s including the Nevada Appeal. He said they have to stop at 1922 because of copyright laws, “unless the Appeal wants to give us permission.” A copy of the finished product including some 800 historic Nevada publications will be turned over to the Library of Congress.
“We want to make everything as accessible as we can,” he said.