Vaulting forward: Archivist brings state's past into the future
Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo State Archivist Gregory Sanford stands among stacks of records stored in Middlesex. Sanford is retiring after 30 years as archivist.
State Archivist Gregory Sanford has spent half his life sheltering everything from Vermont's 1777 Constitution to Gov. Howard Dean's soon-to-be-unsealed 2000 papers on the nation's first civil-union law. But ask what forms the foundation of his 30-year career and he points to two circa-1970 sinkholes.
“This will be a shock,” says the curator with long hair and longer beard, “but I was something of a hippie in those days. I came to Vermont to see friends, and there was one slowly disappearing into the mud under his Volkswagen bus as he was trying to lift the engine out. I thought, wow, this place is sort of cool.”
Sanford settled in to study at the University of Vermont, only to run into a second mess when he ran out of money. On his way to withdraw from school, he stumbled over a $20 bill and, better still, a peer who had just relinquished his paid teaching assistantship and needed a replacement.
“It was just a series of fortuitous events.”
The rest is history. Sanford would graduate to become Vermont's first official archivist in the last state in the country to have one, then multiply and move its files from a flood-prone Montpelier basement to a new multimillion-dollar building in nearby Middlesex. There he has procured and preserved papers dating back to frontiersman Ethan Allen while plugging into 21st century digital technology.
“To find a job that I could grow into something that would help make government more accountable and make records more available — where else would I want to be?”
Only one other place. But the 65-year-old Marshfield resident isn't set to retire until Aug. 1, so he'll reminisce a bit before revealing his next stop.
As a child, Sanford dreamed of studying prehistoric fossils. But growing up in an American Revolution-era saltbox built by his ancestors in Redding, Conn., he discovered their mind-blowing hiding place for gunpowder, which in turn sparked a passion for history closer to home.
Sanford earned a bachelor's degree from Washington College in Maryland and a master's from the University of Vermont. There, the recently deceased state scholar Samuel Hand steered him toward primary sources (Sanford coordinated the George D. Aiken Oral History Project) before Secretary of State (and future governor) James Douglas hired him in 1982 as “editor of state papers.”
Promoted to the new position of “archivist,” Sanford went on to elevate history in the state — literally, moving the repository from underneath the pipes of the Pavilion office block in Montpelier to the Redstone building up the hill and, in 2009, to the new State Records Center in neighboring Middlesex.
Sanford can tell you everything on a tour: The staff totals 15. The shelves tower 20 feet. The storage boxes add up to 97,000 and counting.
Not everyone is impressed. The archivist recalls promoting records preservation to the Legislature when one committee chairman asked, “If they're that important, how come I never use them?”
Perhaps because too many people see such papers as physical scraps rather than mental springboards, the archivist surmises. Sanford can pull tales and theories from the seemingly flattest of parchments with the zeal of a boy recalling a Hall of Famer's life through a baseball card. He sums up his job in one sentence: “How do you integrate state government records into ongoing public dialogues to give context?”
So if you're crafting state health care policy, for example, you can know that in 1931 lawmakers explored a Canadian-style medical model (“the Saskatchewan system developed to deal with tuberculosis,” Sanford specifies off the top of his head) or in 1944 debated socialized medicine.
Or if you're curious why Vermonters aren't swept up by plans for ridgeline wind power, you can flip back to the state's rejection of the proposed Green Mountain Parkway in 1936.
Or if you can't find a solution to any other current problem — be it economic development, environmental protection or education funding — you can realize this isn't the first generation to seek a fix.
“There are continuing issues of government and governance that we have always debated — the tension between the 'freedom from' and the 'freedom to,' between individualism and community.”
History can solve mysteries. Sanford has seen a researcher discern the makeup of the state's pre-settlement forests by tallying the tree types referenced as boundary markers in 1700s town surveys.
It also can add humor. Sanford smiles when Vermont Republicans lament they're outnumbered.
“They're complaining about vast Democratic majorities and one-party government? I keep thinking, did they miss that part when they had total control of everything from 1854 until 1958? You see a different story when you're looking at it from a different level.”
You might assume an archivist is partial to paper. But in this computer era, Sanford would rather invest in making digital records more accessible on the Internet than in printing and preserving them.
“I see my job as managing information and making it all available. How many studies on a certain issue have we done? Is there a way we could get that data presented online so any citizen could look at it and come up with their own ideas?”
Sanford will retire Wednesday, making way for his deputy, Tanya Marshall. He'll miss publishing the periodic column “Voice from the Vault” (typical headline: “Records Management and Zombies”). But he's ready to step out of the spotlight, what with the state recently naming the Middlesex archives in his honor and public radio devoting a full hour to the “living encyclopedia of Vermont.”
(No such luck: “We will be honoring Greg in early fall,” Secretary of State James Condos writes in his latest public newsletter, “and you will be notified as to when and where.”)
Who would have guessed the hippie outsider would become a state institution?
Sanford, for his part, wants to savor private time at home. Ondis Eardensohn — the partner whom the archivist identifies as “the woman who tolerates me” — is fighting cancer. Add two children flying the coop and he has a heartful of reasons to forego the past for the present.
Not that he'll forget the 1777 Constitution.
“As I understand it, the state lost its only manuscript copy and had to buy it back at an estate sale in Connecticut in the late 19th century.”
Or ream upon ream of state-employee timesheets.
“One of the banes of my existence for years was the fact we were saving these forever.”
Sanford succeeded in shortening the retention period. Then government leaders recently needed to review overtime records when a 22-year state policeman resigned after alleged pay discrepancies.
“Nothing's foolproof,” the archivist says. “You can't anticipate the future.”
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