For more than 75 years, the history of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has sat on shelves and in binders and drawers in basement vaults tucked away on Henry Street.
That is, until moving crews began carrying boxes of letters, photographs, microfilm and maps up a flight of stairs and loading them onto a moving truck late last week.
The trucks are carrying the documentation of the Revolutionary City to its new home on the top floor of the Rockefeller Library.
The documents make up Colonial Williamsburg’s corporate archives, which preserves the administrative and legal records as well as history of the foundation. The archives were begun during the 1920s restoration period and hold donor files, telegrams, contracts, newspaper clippings, public flyers, property records and photos from every decade since.
The corporate archives “document the history of the foundation itself, from Dr. [ W.A.R.] Goodwin’s initial vision,” said Carl Childs, deputy director of the John D. Rockefeller Library and director of archives and records. “The collection takes it from the germ of an idea to what [Colonial Williamsburg] is now.”
Early documents include a 1924 letter to Henry and Edsel Ford asking them to help fund the venture. Another is a flyer advertising a “mass meeting” on June 12, 1928 for conveying city property to Goodwin, then the rector of Bruton Parish Church.
Childs said the reason for the move was threefold: space, climate and convenience.
First, the Goodwin Building, with its narrow hallways and small rooms, was not designed to be an archive. The archive’s new home is actually smaller by about 2,000 square feet, but it condenses the documents into 60 sliding shelves that save space. There is also room for the archive to grow.
“We are able to fit more into a smaller footprint,” Childs said. “We’ve taken up every little bit of space here [in the Goodwin building] … we’re bursting at the seams.”
As an older building, the Goodwin Building does not offer a climate conducive to preserving historic documents, he added.
History in one place
Moving the corporate archives under the same roof as Colonial Williamsburg’s’ special collections, visual resources and reference sections — which are tools for the foundation’s historical interpreters — will make research more convenient, Childs said. Instead of driving across town, researchers can simply walk up a flight of stairs.
Logistically, moving the corporate archives’ 8,000 boxes of documents isn’t an easy task.
“How are we going to make sure volume 21 ends up next to volume 22 on the other side?” Childs said.
To ensure everything ends up in the right place, staff are scanning bar codes placed on each box or binder before moving it out of the Goodwin building. Once the item arrives in the Rockefeller it item is scanned again, as is a bar code corresponding to its new shelf.
A crew of eight has been transporting boxes since May 4, with an expectation that the move will be completed by the end of the month.
Childs said the move was made possible by a 2016 grant from the Institute of Library and Museum Services for nearly $228,000 and a subsequent $100,000 private donation. The funding was put into transforming the new space by installing the shelves and ladders that allow staff to store and access the documents. It also helped pay for the electronic scanners and database.
The foundation still studies its past and the lessons learned by its founders to guide its current course, Childs said.
“They really recognized the significance of what they were doing was so important and so big in scope they needed an archive,” Childs said of Goodwin and early foundation President Kenneth Chorley, who orchestrated the founding of the archive.
“They were inventing preservation, and that is the story this archive tells: how to do this.”