Putting Los Alamos history in its place

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By Arin McKenna

In recent years, it has not been easy for archivist Rebecca Collinsworth and her staff or residents and researchers for that matter to access the county’s archives.


Los Alamos County’s historic documents, photos and objects have been scattered between the top two floors of Fuller Lodge, the community building and a J & L Storage unit. The spaces were a curator’s nightmare, with no climate control and lots of dust. The situation also presented challenges for researchers.

“The accessibility of the collection was very complex,” said Los Alamos Historical Society Executive Director Heather McClenahan.  “If somebody was coming in to research the Manhattan Project, the pictures of the Manhattan Project were in one place, and the objects in another place and the documents in even another.”

That changed two months ago when the Los Alamos Historical Society began moving the county’s accumulated history into a specially designed archive space in the new municipal building. 

“Now this is all in one place, and it’s just going to be such a good way for us to take care of the collection. There’s going to be a lot less dust, more humidity, climate controls. And it won’t be the extremes, the dry and the moist, the dry and the moist. It will be maintained,” McClenahan said. “So that’s going to be really important for the conservation of the items.”

The collections are already benefitting from the 30-percent humidity setting for the entire municipal building, but the archives also have a separate climate control thermostat which allows humidity to be set slightly higher and temperatures much lower. 

“Most storage areas in museums are as cold as you can stand it, because that helps preservation,” Collinsworth said.

The climate control will help preserve fine art and textiles, scrapbooks and fragile documents, and unique items such as a wooden door hand carved by Norris Bradbury. 

The archive celebrated its grand opening along with the rest of the municipal building last Friday. 

“See me smile? This is a very happy smile,” McClenahan said during the opening. 

A lot of people were smiling about the new space. 

“The archives have never had such a professional space before,” said Director Emeritus Hedy Dunn. “And I think it will encourage more donors to feel comfortable giving things, because they’re in as good of a situation as they can be.”

“I’m particularly excited to see the historical society’s archives, because it’s a critical piece of the community’s heritage and it deserves that sort of care and stewardship. It’s really important,” resident Candace Matelic said. 

Those who use the archives–ranging from local people studying community history to Pulitzer Prize winning historians–should appreciate not only having everything in one place and accessible, but the comfortable research and work room as well. In the past they had to work at tables in the crowded spaces of the archive themselves, with temperatures set as cold as possible to preserve the collection. 

“I’ve passed out jackets and extra shirts to researchers who were working on photographs before. We had a bunch of frozen people,” Collinsworth said. 

Collinsworth thinks researchers will appreciate something else about the new space.

“It’s got wonderful natural light,” Collinsworth said. She was in the photo archives at the community building the last two and a half years, with only inadequate artificial light. 

“I’m going to have to wear shades or something for a while to get used to it,” Collinsworth laughed. 

Staff showed off some space-saving technology on Friday: shelving units that open electronically to provide access. 

The units are equipped with electronic sensors that prevent the units from moving if the beam is broken, even by something as small as a plastic bag. 

That is not only a safety measure for humans, but it prevents any object that may fall from the shelves from being inadvertently crushed.

Although the archives may be officially open, it will be mid-July before Collinsworth is ready to open the doors to researchers and to accept donations. 

Staff is still removing a few odds and ends from storage at Fuller Lodge, a process made more difficult by the construction now in progress there. One of the construction workers turned up a surprise in the basement: a collection of manos and metates (tools used by Puebloan Indians for grinding corns). Those will also be added to the collection. 

The society is awaiting the arrival of floor tables for the workspace, shelving units and a large custom made museum table for projects. 

Collinsworth faces a major challenge over the next few months: documenting every item’s new location in the catalogue.

“Everything has changed its location, and all the records show location. So that means that we need to change each individual record to say where it is now,” Collinsworth said.

 “And that’s just going to take forever. I just ordered the magnetic label holders for the shelving so we can at least see what we’re looking at.”

Despite the hard work of the last few months and the challenges ahead, the excitement was palpable Friday.

“I think it’s going to be a wonderful place for researchers to come in and have real space to research in. And to have it much more accessible than it’s been in the past is going to be important as well,” McClenahan said.

“There have been more than 30 books that have published nationally that have credited the Historical Society archives. We’re excited to get some of those folks back and let them see the new space. It’s going to be fun.”