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The future of the past is still doubtful

In 1981, the Nevada Legislature held ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of gambling being made legal in the state.

As part of my coverage of the ceremonies for a Reno television station, I thought it would be good to shoot some footage of the original legislation with Gov. Fred Balzar’s signature. When I called the Nevada State Archives, they didn’t have it and they didn’t know where it could be found.

Truth to tell, I wasn’t all that surprised. After all, an entire century had passed before Nevada got around to even starting a state archives. That happened at the 1965 Nevada Legislature, after the state had celebrated its centennial of statehood.

I remembered that incident recently when I read in the Washington Post that there is a national search underway for the original Declaration of Sentiments adopted in 1848 at the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y. Because it is not an official document, it is not in the National Archives, but it is not known to reside in private or state collections, either.

“While many Americans have heard of [women’s rights leader Elizabeth Cady] Stanton and a handful of other suffragists, such as Susan B. Anthony, much of the memorabilia from that era remains scattered,” the Post reported. “The minutes of the convention have not been found, but historians have located the tea table on which they were written. … [S]everal of the items on the Declaration of Sentiments have been addressed through changes to U.S. laws on voting, marriage and divorce, among other matters, others are still a work in progress.”

It’s surprising how often I come across instances of Nevada historic documents going missing. When Lady Bird Johnson died in 2007, I recalled that as part of her beautification campaign as first lady, she had written a letter in 1966 praising the marvelous new Washoe County Library in Reno, which included a lot of indoor foliage and other distinctive features. The framed letter had once been on display in the library, but when I went looking for it, it was nowhere to be found. I contacted the library director and got back a reply.

“Unfortunately, the letter seems to have disappeared,” she wrote. “When we had our… centennial celebration several years ago, library staff searched high and low for it and did not find it. Again, we searched for it, but did not come up with it. We can’t seem to find a copy of the letter, either.”

Many times I have seen valuable official Nevada state government documents for sale on the rare documents market. One 1960s state official is known to have given away state records as souvenirs to capitol visitors. Nevada Secretary of State William Greathouse (1923-1937) held a bonfire of documents in order to make space in the capitol, and a later fire in a leased hotel also destroyed a huge store of state records.

Even when the state knows where its documents are, they are not necessarily well cared for, as was shown with the original handwritten copy of the Nevada Constitution.

At the 1983 Nevada Legislature, that document was placed on display in the legislative lobby, one side of which was floor-to-ceiling glass. Throughout the afternoon each day, the faded constitution sat baking in the sunlight. On the first day of the display, I ran a television report about it, the objections of archivists, and the implications for the document’s preservation. In passing, I happened to mention that the presence of the constitution there was illegal because state law required that it always be in the custody of the secretary of state. The next morning the lawmakers passed a law making its presence legal but did nothing to protect the document, a typical political “solution.”

The Nevada State Archives has been a godsend to state officials trying to defend against a lawsuit by California seeking to redefine the state border, or businessmen who use the records regularly, or veterans who need draft records held by the Nevada Archives so they can get benefits. Three different state budget directors have proposed shutting down the archives altogether.

Over the years, the staff of the state archives, who are on the front lines of protecting our documentary history, has fluctuated substantially, from a high of 12 positions to a low of two. The instability of the size of the archives handicaps both the agency and those who use it.

Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.

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