October is American Archives Month, and this year’s theme is the power of collaboration. How fitting that it was a collaboration between several parties that resulted in the temporary relocation of the Sonoma County Archives, a collection of primary source materials that document the county’s history.
The Sonoma County Library, which has managed the collection since 1967, paid to have these priceless records – 26 truckloads of materials – moved from a warehouse at the county’s Los Guilicos campus to the Farm Bureau’s Westwind Boulevard building during the last two weeks of August. The library is covering costs associated with tenant improvements. The county has agreed to pay rent, offered at a reduced rate by the Farm Bureau, for the next two years. The collection should be installed and accessible by mid-October, just in time for Archives Month.
This is not the first time the Farm Bureau has supported the library. In 1945, the Farm Bureau advocated for the establishment of the Sonoma County Library system.
On March 13, 1945, Gene Courtney, Farm Bureau secretary (what we’d call the executive director today) and chair of the Sonoma County Library Committee, sent a letter to leaders of 59 county organizations pointing out that Sonoma County was one of only four California counties without a county library. He stressed that the demand for books had never been greater due to limitations on travel, the needs of returning war veterans, and the inadequacy of rural school libraries. Courtney recommended that organizations pass a resolution expressing their support for a library and sending it to the Board of Supervisors. He asked for their help in ensuring that “Sonoma County’s cultural facilities matched its agricultural and natural resources.”
On May 8, two months after this letter went out and one month after the county grand jury recommended establishing a county library, the Board of Supervisors met in a packed chamber and listened, for two hours, to those appearing for and against the library plan.
The bulk of the opposition came from five well-known agriculturalists: Carl Paulsen, Sebastopol; L.M. Meredith, Santa Rosa; A.J. Petersen, Roblar District; B.B. Hinshaw, Petaluma, and Genevieve Talbot of Bennett Valley.
Those speaking against the library plan believed the cost of the proposed service was “too high given present taxes” and wanted to “keep all the money we can in the treasury” for war-related emergencies. The library system would be funded by a tax increase on rural properties of 4 to 6 cents per $100 of assessed value.
Between 60 and 70 people representing farm centers, granges, 4-H clubs, and other organizations urged a favorable vote, demanding a circulating library for its rural members.
Gene Courtney testified that seven of the county’s eight farm centers supported the plan, while 57 of the 59 organizations who received his letter gave their approval.
At the end of a heated debate, Supervisor James Lyttle made a motion favoring a Sonoma County Library system. Supervisor E.J. “Nin” Guidotti and Chairman Lloyd Cullen voted yes, and Supervisors George Kennedy and Joseph Cox voted no.
By the fall of 1945, Frances G. Murphy had been hired as county librarian. Previously, she was an assistant county librarian in Sacramento. Headquarters for the Sonoma County Library was in the courthouse. Within five years, it had expanded to 96 outlets: the central library, four branches, 10 “storefronts,” a bookmobile, and 80 school libraries.
Throughout the 1960s, the Sonoma County Library added branches and gained other member libraries, first in 1965 via a merger with the Santa Rosa Public Library and subsequent mergers and cooperative agreements.
Also, that year, the Board of Supervisors and the Santa Rosa City Council adopted a joint resolution designating the “new” Santa Rosa-Sonoma County Public Library the official archives of the county and the city.
This made sense as plans to demolish the county courthouse and Santa Rosa City Hall was in the works. A new downtown Santa Rosa library was expected to open in 1967 and it would have ample space for archival records.
That’s how the Sonoma County Library became the custodian of a collection of materials consisting of original documents covering a wide range of aspects pertaining to the county’s social, economic, and political history. The collection is used by journalists, land-use planners and attorneys, surveyors, educators, historians, county staff, committee and commission members, genealogists, students of all ages, and countless others.
In 1995 the archives were moved to a 3,800-square-foot warehouse at the county’s Los Guilicos campus, where it sat for 26 years. During that time, additional materials determined “archival” by the county records manager (a position created in 1984) and the Sonoma County Historical Records Commission (established in 1979) were deeded to the library and placed in the building.
Within the last five years, that warehouse was nearly destroyed twice by fire – the Nuns Fire in 2017 and the Glass Fire in 2020. Besides threats from fire, the building was always considered unsuitable for storing paper-based materials, photographs, linen-backed maps and drawings, and other fragile items.
The building lacked environmental controls and without onsite staff, had minimal security. Also given its location an “out of sight, out of mind” problem existed.
Moving the archives out of harm’s way had to happen, and it did, thanks in part to the Farm Bureau’s executive director, Tawny Tesconi, who saw a need she and her board could address.
The next step is for the library and the county to develop a memorandum of understanding that clarifies roles and responsibilities for the collection and a long-term plan addressing improved access, management, and permanent housing of the archives. In the meantime, we can breathe more easily knowing that the county’s history is safe and located in a far less isolated area where Farm Bureau staff and other nearby tenants can raise an alarm should another fire or disaster strike.
To learn more about the Sonoma County Archives and efforts to ensure its future, go to the Advocates for the Sonoma County Archives website. Interested in requesting items from the Archives? Contact staff at the Sonoma County History & Genealogy Library.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2021 Sonoma-Marin Farm News, a publication of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.