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Archivist leaves files in top shape

But his retirement will put a century of county records out of reach

Rich Thelen can still envision the state of Jackson County's historic records when he became the county's first archivist.

Everything was geographically located in heaps in various places throughout the courthouse, Thelen said of the disarray he faced in fall 1977.

Already a veteran archivist for Uncle Sam in Chicago and later in San Francisco for more than a dozen years, he quickly began cleaning up and sorting out the historic documents.

When Thelen, 63, retired March 12, he left behind a 4,500-square-foot county archive building in White City chock full of neat rows of records going back to the early 1850s. The documents were moved into the archives in 1983.

But the county's first archivist may also be its last. Faced with having to expand the now-full building, the county plans to contract the archives out to a private records storage firm in an effort to save money.

— It's really very sad, said Jackson County Clerk Kathy Beckett, whose office oversees the archives. Rich has been such an asset to the county ' he's made it (archives) into a great resource.

But with his retirement, all that institutional memory is going with him, she added.

His retirement also comes at a time when the financially strapped county has run out of storage space, she said.

An estimated &

36;278,850 is needed for expansion, she said. The archive operating cost for the fiscal year, which ends June 30, is &


The issue is there isn't any room, and we don't have any money to build on to increase it, she said. What we're in the process of doing now is looking to contract archive services with a records storage facility.

Beckett is chairwoman of the Archives Committee, which has been studying the issue for the past six months. Its reluctant recommendation is to contract with a private storage firm, she said.

They did not want to do this, she stressed. But the financial considerations made it prohibitive to expand.

Yet it's unknown whether contracting the archives out will save money in the long run, she said.

Many archive patrons have expressed concern the records will no longer be available to professional researchers, college students or family members interested in looking up ancestral history, she said.

The fear is that the archives will not be readily available and will require researchers to find the correct county department, which will then dispatch a courier to the archive storage area to look for the appropriate document.

It's very important for us to be able to go there and look through the material, stressed Emillee Brazill, library manager for the Rogue Valley Genealogical Society.

It's so important to have one place to go, and to have someone like Rich in charge who can help you, she said.

She wonders, for instance, which county department a person would visit to ask about cattle brands.

Thelen would have simply trotted out the Marks and Brands book, which goes back to 1854, she noted.

There are so many records out there, she said. We have sent a lot of people there who are interested in doing research. They do need to browse in some cases. It's essential to have that access.

John Enders, executive director of the Southern Oregon Historical Society, agreed.

It's unfortunate because it will make it more difficult for the public to have access to vital public records, he said.

Ashland resident Kay Atwood, a historian and author, is also concerned.

It appears to me the era of being able to use the archives for historic purposes has ended, she said.

The loss of access will have a devastating effect not only on professional historians but local residents interested in researching their property or ancestors, researchers say.

If I or anyone were doing work on the Chinese, access to the records would be critical, Atwood said, alluding to the fact evidence of a Chinese culture from 19th century gold-mining days is currently being unearthed at a road construction project in Jacksonville.

That information would be available in a document titled, Index of Ferry, Liquor and Chinese Licenses, according to Thelen. He has agreed to be available on a on-call basis until the archives are turned over to a private firm for storage.

I always enjoyed it when people came out to do research, he said. I've always felt it was important that people use the records.

They say that to learn from the past, you have to go back into it.

While he plans to focus much of his future research on fly fishing and traveling with his wife, Donna, he won't forget the historic documents he helped preserve.

I'd like to see the archives continue on, he said. In some respects, they are the county's best-kept secret.

Rich Thelen, Jackson County?s first archivist, has retired, leaving the management of the county?s historic records in limbo. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Mail Tribune Bob Pennell