For Sunshine Week — the nationwide celebration of public records and transparency — WyoFile checks in on a pillar of open government.
The Wyoming State Archives, established in 1951, preserves and shares records documenting Wyoming’s history and governmental operations.
“We keep records as a means of transparency,” State Archivist Sara Davis said. “We keep records for people to access those records.”
Journalists might use them to examine government officials’ past decisions, like reporting that looked back at why Wyoming’s first state-sanctioned execution in 1892 was of a teenage boy. The state archives offered a glimpse into the policy discussion at the time — one reminiscent of contemporary conversations about why children cause harm and how to respond.
Davis, who took her position as state archivist in September 2021, points out that public records also benefit people in their everyday lives.
“We have 75% of the high school transcripts in the state of Wyoming here at the State Archives,” Davis said. On a daily basis, archive staff help people track down their school records, “so people can get jobs, they can change their name, they can get benefits,” Davis said.
The State Archive has sustained budget cuts over the last 10 years and its full-time staff has gone from 27 to 14, Davis said.
“The State Archives could do a lot more with more staff. We could offer more services and enhance some of the services and tools that we do have, conduct more outreach and much much more,” Davis said.
Davis sees public records as essential to a functioning democracy, but admits she’s biased.
“I love the archives, obviously, I became an archivist,” Davis said. “I think it’s my duty to provide … access to information.”
That duty is easier said than done, however. Davis and other officials must perpetually wrestle with questions of which records to preserve, where to store them, for how long, and if and how the public can access archived materials. How those questions are answered, and by whom, can have an enormous impact on transparency.
What to keep
The State Records Committee, which Davis chairs, decides on retention schedules. The 41-page schedules document outlines which government records should be archived and for how long.
Birth and death certificates, official government press releases, documentation of food served at state facilities and mine inspections are among the hundreds of documents listed. It’s a record requester’s version of a menu.
Imagine going to a restaurant and ordering without reading the menu first. You want tunafish so you order a tuna melt, but the waitress rejects your order because that’s not how they serve tuna. She’s slammed and annoyed that you wasted her time, so she moves onto the next table without suggesting the tuna panini as a suitable alternative.
Similarly, records requests to government agencies are more successful when they’re precise. Journalists and other records requestors deal with that quandary every day: How to get what you’re looking for, without knowing exactly what’s available, or what it’s called. Retention schedules help narrow in on what to request.
By Wyoming law “all public records shall be open for inspection.” That gives you a right to review government-generated documents “whether in paper, electronic, or other physical form,” but not to request specific pieces of information. The key to accessing the information you want is to know the name of the document it’s on. And that’s just one hurdle.
“Everything that you create when you work for the government is a public record, but not all public records are open to the public,” Davis said. Legislative correspondence, for example, is exempted from records requests, as are many types of personnel records. “But we do have protocols in place for members of the public to request access to those restricted records.”
The State Archives currently cares for 94,000 cubic feet of physical materials — more than enough to cover the surface of 20 college football fields with records boxes — as well as 15 terabytes of digital files.
Some 20% of the state’s records are housed at the Barrett Building in Cheyenne — also home to the Wyoming State Museum — while the other 80% are stored in a warehouse on the edge of town. But just because a document is on the retention schedule doesn’t guarantee it’s in the archive.
“We cannot make the state agencies send this stuff to us,” Davis said.
There are agencies — she didn’t name names — that don’t transfer all their records to the archive.
“That keeps me up at night,” she said. “I have to switch off and say ‘you know, I contacted these people, I had a meeting with them, I told them how to care for their records, I offered these really great services and I can’t do anything else.’”
Davis advocates to keep records longer than necessary when possible, but some destruction is inevitable to make space for the newer material that does come in. Even in the digital age there are constraints, she said.
“There are still lots of costs associated with storing digital records,” she said. Whether it’s boxes in a warehouse or digital files backed up to multiple servers, preservation requires storing records in climate-controlled facilities with routine human monitoring.
Including more histories
Davis thinks constantly about the potential future value of documents, she said.
“We are always learning new things,” she said. “The fact that we deal with records and researchers on a daily basis, we kind of know what’s going to be important in the future.” But she knows from personal experience that there have been communities and perspectives excluded from the archives.
“My maternal grandfather grew up in what was referred to as the Spanish Colony in Greely, Colorado and worked as a sugar beet farm laborer,” Davis said. “Little was documented and known about this community until my cousin and his wife, Jodi and Gabriel Lopez, began digging into city and county records, working with the archivist from [the University of Northern Colorado], and completing their own personal research and gathering photographs and conducting oral history interviews with surviving members of that community.”
“There are many other communities and stories of the like that are either hidden in collections and forgotten or the information was never included,” Davis said. “I see my role as an archivist to include more histories from all members of our community to be able to provide a more accurate and unbiased representation of our past. My cousins’ story inspired me to work towards securing a place for these communities.”
Digital technology, while resource intensive, has facilitated Davis’ efforts to expand the archives’ reach. The COVID-19 pandemic catalyzed the archive to create a resource page to help people access records while stuck at home.
Davis also secured funding for two digitization kits and two oral history kits, for the WYO Roving Archivist project. Community organizations and cultural institutions across the state can check out the tool kits to document their own history to be housed at the state archives, Davis said.
She also established a speaker series held the second Thursday of every month at 7 p.m. — in person and online — focused on communities not well represented in the archive, like a presentation on early Black communities in Southern Wyoming coal camps.
“We also started collecting a lot more materials on the Latin American community here in Cheyenne,” Davis said. “So those are little tiny bits of progress, [but] it takes time.”