Digital paper

Washington’s first female archivist hopes to expand access to digital and paper records

Nick Gibson / The Critic-Review

As a longtime civil servant in Thurston County, Heather Hirotaka is used to preserving history, not creating it.

But that’s what Hirotaka did earlier this month, when Secretary of State Steve Hobbs named her the next Archivist of Washington State, the first woman to hold the position.

In this role, Hirotaka will oversee the Washington State Archives, which collects and preserves the state’s historical records and makes them available to the public. The archives has branches in Bellevue, Bellingham, Ellensburg, Olympia, and Cheney, which is the nation’s first state archive branch dedicated to the preservation of electronic records.

Hirotaka said she was honored to be the first woman in this role and it is amazing to think that it took so long to have a female state archivist.

“I think as a woman sometimes there are opportunities to see things a little differently, and to see things maybe from a different perspective,” Hirotaka said.

Hirotaka spent 18 years working in the Thurston County Auditor’s Office, which gave him a basic understanding of the state and local government records preservation process. She said she started as a registration specialist and worked her way up to licensing and registration manager in the auditor’s office, before eventually leaving to join the secretary’s office. Status in 2017.

She has always been passionate about history. Hirotaka said the passion was fueled by her own life experiences, as well as her husband’s family experience of being incarcerated in a Japanese internment camp during World War II.

“The family story side really appeals to me,” Hirotaka said. “Understanding where we come from, why it’s important, why it’s important to tell these stories and why it’s important to make them accessible is extremely important to me just on a personal level, but also just this pride in being Washington and how we’re going there.”

As the daughter of a military man, Hirotaka spent her early years moving from base to base. She was born in Washington and went back to high school, graduating from a high school in Yakima before earning a bachelor’s degree in law and justice from Central Washington University.

“Eastern Washington always has a special place in my heart,” Hirotaka said. “Even though I live on the West Side now, I’m still very, very connected and very passionate about Eastern Washington and making sure Eastern Washington isn’t forgotten in the landscape of the things we do. “

Prior to accepting her new role as Archivist of Washington State, Hirotaka served as Director of Community Programs in the Office of the Secretary of State. Hirotaka said one of her responsibilities as director was to oversee Legacy Washington, a program aimed at telling the stories of extraordinary Washingtonians through public exhibits, novels, short stories and digital projects.

“I think when I met Secretary Hobbs, and he heard this passion that I have for this program – because it’s so important to tell these stories and preserve them – I think for him , he was like, ‘This is a really great connection to get into the archives,’ Hirotaka said.

Hirotaka will be able to continue to share his passion with the Legacy Washington team, since the program has followed all the way to the State Archives. She said their next project focuses on the 10th anniversary of marriage equality for same-sex couples in Washington.

Hirotaka’s number one priority as State Archivist is to connect the public to the State Archives. She said it’s a public resource that everyone should be able to use, and that there are friendly, hard-working people at the archive just waiting to help someone dig up some history.

“I’m so passionate about what we do, and I think you can collect records forever, but if you don’t make them accessible, if you don’t tell the stories behind those records, what good are the records to you? ” said Hirotaka. “So for me, it’s really about this outreach piece. It’s about making the history of Washington State accessible, but also really thinking about who we’re trying to reach.”

As for who they’re trying to reach, Hirotaka hopes to connect with a wider audience than those who are already familiar with their services. She wants to reach beyond history buffs and reach ordinary citizens like a high school student who may not yet realize he has a passion for history, Hirotaka said.

“Ordinary citizens who don’t understand why archives are important, how do we make that connection for them and show them the value of archives?” Hirotaka said. “Our greatest asset at the archives are the people, they are passionate about what they do, they love history, they love the act of preservation. Nothing makes an archivist’s day more than finding that treasure that someone was looking for and make it available to them.”

Hirotaka said the digital archive, housed on Cheney branch servers, is among the strongest in the country, with more than 238 million records. Many of them are searchable, and more and more are becoming searchable as archivists strive to index the records.

Inquisitive minds can browse the digital records themselves or contact their local archives branch to speak to an archivist who can help them find what they’re looking for, whether it’s a digital copy of a marriage certificate or an old property book with a distant family member’s deed inside.

“It’s really, really my calling to be part of the positive changes in our state, to make things accessible and to really open it up to everyone so everyone knows they’re a part of it,” Hirotaka said. “And the archives are a perfect place for that; everybody’s part of the archives. Everybody has a story to tell and everybody has a story where they’re from. So I think that’s pretty awesome to connect people with it.”