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Home People People in Public Service: New State Archivist Heather Hirotaka Invites You to Access Records of Washington’s History and Your Heritage

People in Public Service: New State Archivist Heather Hirotaka Invites You to Access Records of Washington’s History and Your Heritage

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New State Archivist Heather Hirotaka invites you to access the millions of records at the Washington State Archives and learn more about the state’s and your history. In fact, Hirotaka made history herself. She is the first woman appointed to her position, overseeing the collection and retention of state and local government records, and more.

Access is one of her goals in her new job. “I want to open the archives to everyone,” she says.

Hirotaka’s New and Historic Role as Washington State Archivist

Secretary of State Steve Hobbs appointed Hirotaka to her new role and she began in July. The state archives is a division of the Office of the Secretary of State (OSOS). Hirotaka previously served as the OSOS director of community programs, including the Legacy Washington oral history and exhibit program. Before that, she worked in the Thurston County Auditor’s Office where she managed archiving records.

State Archivist Heather Hirotaka (second from left) leads staff located in Olympia and at offices around Washington.
State Archivist Heather Hirotaka (second from left) leads staff located in Olympia and at offices around Washington. The State Archives is a division in the Office of the Secretary of State. Photo credit: Nancy Krier

Hirotaka will continue with the Legacy Washington program as state archivist. One of that program’s recent exhibits, titled “Ahead of the Curve,” celebrates the 100th anniversary of U.S. women gaining the right to vote. The exhibit also features Washington women trailblazers in the courts, education, business, philanthropy, governance and media. And now Hirotaka is part of that club.

Hirotaka Oversees Archives, a Terrific Resource

Hirotaka wants people to see the archives as a terrific resource. “We are connecting people to great stories and collections,” Hirotaka says. “Understanding how collections matter to people is my focus.”

These collections mean you can research government history like a legislative bill, a city council’s minutes, a Governor’s programs, an official visit by dignitaries, as well as potentially some of your own personal heritage. The millions of paper and digital records include not just official state and local agency business documents, but also many land records; birth, marriage, divorce and death records; court records; photographs; state and local newspapers; histories of local community events and people; and even scrapbooks. For example, the scrapbooks of Muriel Little, state Senate hostess, will soon be available at the Digital Archives.

State Archivist Heather Hirotaka sitting at her desk
State Archivist Heather Hirotaka began her new position in July. She invites Washingtonians to use archival records to learn about state history and their personal heritage. Photo credit: Nancy Krier

“We deal with many private individuals who come in,” Hirotaka says. She says it brings joy to her staff when they can help locate a birth or death record needed to obtain benefits or find another critical piece of family history. “We close that loop for them in a way that can be life changing,” she says.

Hirotaka’s own family history is illustrative. Her husband is a fourth generation Japanese American whose family was forced into a World War II internment camp, forfeiting their farms outside Bellevue. “This is why this job gives meaning and value,” she says of the State Archives’ records, exhibits and programs. “It is so important for my daughter to know these stories. Otherwise, they are forgotten.”

“We want to make sure that the people who contribute to the history of Washington are captured and heard,” she adds.

Hirotaka Manages the State Archives, Regional Branches and Digital Archives

Hirotaka oversees about 60 staff at the State Archives, regional branches in Olympia, Bellevue, Bellingham, Cheney and Ellensburg and at the Digital Archives. She sings their praises. “They love and support the work we do,” she says. “They are the true champions of the archives. All the credit goes to them. It is a great feeling to be a part of that team.”

archival filing cabinets
State Archivist Heather Hirotaka says they preserve historical paper documents dating to the territorial days, while placing many of their images online. The original Washington Constitution is locked in this underground safe. Photo credit: Nancy Krier

Hirotaka works in the main office on the East Capitol Campus. That office is mostly below ground. Reportedly designed as a Cold War fallout shelter, the building became an archive in 1963. However, almost 60 years later, that facility storing records in underground vaults presents problems – like water leaks – for preserving records dating back to the territorial days. Hirotaka says her division will be moving to a new facility in Tumwater in the fall of 2025, approximately.

Keeping Up with Public Interest and New Challenges

It’s not lost on Hirotaka that current attention on the National Archives and preservation of federal records may translate to greater interest in states’ archival requirements as well. “Especially for elected officials, it’s really important that people understand about records retention and records management, and their responsibilities to retain records and meet retention schedules,” she explains. Among other duties, her staff provide training on records management.

There’s a lot on the horizon. In February 2023, the State Archives anticipates opening an exhibit recognizing the 10-year anniversary of marriage equality in Washington. Hirotaka and her staff also continue to work on ongoing or even unexpected challenges, such as emerging technologies that create records, or providing guidance on maintaining COVID-19 records. “How we preserve the legacy of these days is what matters, and COVID is no different,” she says. “We stand ready to preserve that.”

See the State Archives website for information about how to contact research staff, schedule an appointment to review records, or access records online.

Olympia Branch Manager Sarah Dana in the archives
Olympia Branch Manager Sarah Dana works with State Archivist Heather Hirotaka and staff to store state and local records in this underground vault. Many records are accessible online or by appointment. Photo credit: Nancy Krier
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