The Journal of San Diego History
Winter/Spring 2001, Volume 47, Number 1
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

In the first edition of the Guide to the San Diego Historical Society Public Records Collection Richard W. Crawford cited historian Hugh T. Lefter’s 1965 lament that most regional histories did not make use of local public records. This was no less true for San Diego histories, which up to that point had relied mostly on secondary sources, most of which were based on legends and boosterism. Since its publication, Crawfords’ guide has made available a large amount of these records, not only to professional historians, but also to undergraduate students, graduate students, and countless other researchers. In turn, many dissertations, theses and local histories have been generated, helping to create a tradition of scholarly local history in San Diego. Lefter would have been impressed.

Yet, over the thirteen years since the guide’s publication the collection has nearly doubled in size. The Research Archives currently has half a mile of shelf space of San Diego City and County public records. This substantial growth in our holdings, along with the need to make these additional records accessible to researchers, has been the major impetus for the revision of this guide.

The guide’s beginning traces back to 1982 when Virginia McKenzie Smith and David McKenzie Smith made a very generous contribution for a three-year project to inventory and describe the public records of the San Diego Historical Society. Another contribution was made by the Smiths in 1985, which allowed the society to purchase computers and software, much needed for this type of comprehensive project. After countless hours of work from staff and volunteers the project finally reached its culmination in 1987 with the publication of the Guide to the San Diego History Center Public Records Collection.

Yet more public records from the city and county continued to arrive in the archives. Many of these records were simply continuations of the series that were originally described in the guide. But numerous record series not listed in the guide were also donated.

Two years ago, when John Panter and I assumed the duties of the Archivist and Assistant Archivist positions, we sought to establish better intellectual and physical control over the more recently donated public record series. It was not long before the decision was made to begin work on an updated version of the guide.

Arranging and describing such a large and diverse amount of records can be a daunting task. One must not only be aware of the many different record series, but also the workings and relationships in and between the county and city government offices that generated them. Over the past one hundred and fifty years, since the creation of the County and City of San Diego, many offices have either changed duties and functions, or have been completely dissolved in favor of others, mostly as the result of charter changes.

Thankfully, the task was made easier by the ground work of Crawford and others in the first guide. Various public record inventories and guides also proved invaluable in this project. These would include the W.P.A. Inventory of the County Archives of California and Laren W. Metzer’s Identification of the Historical Records of County Government in California.1

I would also like to thank the following staff, volunteers and interns, who’s help was vital to the completion of this project. Archivist John Panter, with his many years of archival experience, was instrumental in supplying guidance and support. California State University, Fullerton intern David Brewer and San Diego City as School intern Robert Goulet spent numerous hours arranging and inventorying many public record series. Volunteer Jane Cowgill offered her time to enter inventories into data bases. Ellen Sweet, with her substantial knowledge of local public records, was crucial to helping the society acquire several important record series. Finally, I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to the many other volunteers and interns who gave copious hours of their time since 1987 helping to process public records.

Dennis G. Sharp
April 10, 2001

1. Southern California Historical Records Survey Project and Writing Services, War Services Section, Inventory of the County Archives of California, no. 38, San Diego County (San Diego: Works Projects Administration of California, 1943), and Laren W. Metzer, comp. Identification of the Historical Records of County Government in California (Sacramento: California State Archives, 1981).