The Minnesota State Archives has had a complex organizational history. Currently, it is a department of the Minnesota Historical Society, a private not-for-profit organization chartered in 1849 by the Minnesota Territorial Legislature.
The original charter included among the Society's objectives “the collection and preservation of a Library.” An amendment in 1856 specifically included a reference to the collection of “manuscripts.” Although the terms public records, archives or government records were not mentioned in the Society's charter, preservation of the state's official records remained a concern of the Society throughout the nineteenth century.
In 1913 the Society proposed legislation that would establish the institution as the state's “Department of Archives and History.” Although this phraseology was not enacted into law, the Legislature did appropriate funds for a new building for the Minnesota Historical Society and other agencies (Laws, 1913, c. 527). In 1915 the Society was made the sole occupant of the proposed new historical building and appropriations were made “for the care, preservation, and protection of the State Archives” (Laws, 1915, c. 143). This is the earliest known reference to the state archives as a body of records. Impetus for this legislation came from the first survey of state records conducted in 1914-1915 by Herbert A. Kellar and sponsored by the Public Archives Commission of the American Historical Association and the Society. Detailing the wretched conditions under which Minnesota's official records were stored, Kellar's report recommended that noncurrent government records be placed under the authority of a state commission or, alternatively, that the Historical Society administer the archives.
The Society's responsibility for state archives became even more explicit in 1919 when the Legislature authorized it “to receive and is made the custodian of such records, files, documents, books, and papers as may be turned over to it from any of the public offices of the state, including state, county, city, village and township offices” (Laws, 1919, c. 170). Although the Society could receive government records, the statutes did not provide for the disposal of government records. Not until 1927 did the Legislature enact permissive disposal of records, this time restricting permission to specific types of records of the county auditor's office. However, in a somewhat curious directive, the auditors were instructed to transfer records to the Society instead of disposing of them personally. The Society, after proper appraisal, could retain those records of historical importance and dispose of the remainder (Laws, 1927, c. 175). Various amendments relating to specific records were enacted in later years, with the Society receiving in 1939 authority to dispose similarly of certain state records (Laws, 1939, c. 41). In 1941 legislation reaffirmed and enlarged the Society's ability to receive official records from virtually all government agencies and to dispose of those records deemed to be without legal, administrative, or historical value (Laws, 1941, c. 553).
Numerous records were indeed received by the Society during these decades. However, a resurvey of the state's records in 1928 by the Public Archives Commission discovered that storage conditions of and accessibility to records had deteriorated even further. The increasing volume of such records encouraged alternative proposals. The legislatively-created Interim Commission on State Administration and Employment recommended in 1945 that an Archives Commission be created to regularize the disposal and preservation of government records. The Minnesota State Archives Act of 1947 created the Minnesota State Archives Commission as a separate state agency and charged it with responsibility for the state records, removing that responsibility from the Minnesota Historical Society (Laws, 1947, c. 547). The commission consisted of the state auditor, the attorney general, the commissioner of administration, the public examiner, and the superintendent of the Minnesota Historical Society. The commission's broad powers extended to nearly all agencies of state (but not local) government except for the University of Minnesota, the state agricultural society, the Minnesota Historical Society, the state library, and the Supreme Court. These powers included directing the destruction of records, mandating the reproduction of such records (including microfilming), and directing the archival storage of records. The act also defined records to include virtually any “written matter in printing, typewriting, or in pen or pencil” as well as maps, photographs, plans, blueprints, diagrams, vouchers, stamps, and bookkeeping records. The Archives Commission hired its first professional State Archivist in 1950. In 1955 the State Archives Commission received responsibility for local government records, which had remained with the Society (Laws, 1955, c. 184).
The state archives holdings, which had been housed in the Historical Building, were removed to the State Office Building in 1955-1956 and then to a larger state-owned building at 117 University Avenue in St. Paul in 1960. A conservation program was established in 1955-1956; a records center for the temporary storage of records opened in 1960; and a preservation microfilming program began in 1962-1963. A records management program and an emergency records preservation program in the event of natural or nuclear disasters were specifically authorized in 1963 (Laws, 1963, c. 695).
In 1971 the Legislature abolished the State Archives Commission, transferred its records management functions to the state Department of Administration, returned its archival functions to the Minnesota Historical Society, and established a records disposition panel to act on agency requests for records destruction and transfer (Laws, 1971, c. 529). The records disposition panel consisted of the director of the Minnesota Historical Society, the attorney general, and the public examiner [later replaced by the Legislative Auditor (Laws, 1974, c. 184) and the State Auditor (Laws, 1982, c. 573)]. The 1971 organizational changes did not result in substantive changes in the powers of the former Minnesota State Archives Commission. However, in the matter of records policy and legislative intent, this legislation included a specific statement declaring that the disposal and preservation of public records would be “controlled exclusively” by this statute and that all previous or future acts shall be subordinate to this statute unless specifically exempted from it (sec. 3). Legislation in 1973 clarified and expanded the definition of “public records” to include all “writings and other data, information or documentary material, regardless of physical form or characteristics, storage media or conditions of use,” specifically excluded materials kept solely for reference from the definition of record, and designated the executive council of the Society as the agency to administer the national historic records act. Between 1971 and 1975, the state archives staff first reported to the Society's deputy director, then to its chief librarian, and finally, again to the deputy director.
In 1975 the Society merged the state archives functions with its Manuscripts Division to form the Division of Archives and Manuscripts. The state archives holdings were removed to the Society's Research Center at 1500 Mississippi Street in St. Paul in 1975-1976 and the first comprehensive inventory of the holdings was created. Expansions of the conservation laboratory and the microfilming program occurred, microfilm standards for archival government records were established, and an aggressive transfer policy for archival records was pursued, especially for records of local jurisdictions and those of state correctional and human services facilities. Major provisions relating to access to records were legislated in 1982 (Laws, 1982, c. 573). Employees of the archives received authority to inspect and appraise records regardless of their data privacy classification; agencies were required to notify the archives if records to be transferred were classified other than public; records arriving at the archives were declared to be public upon transfer, except for those items determined by the Society to meet specific conditions identified in the law; and the attorney general, on behalf of the Society, was authorized to replevin public records unlawfully transferred from an agency.
During 1982-1983, the Minnesota State Historical Records Advisory Board conducted an in-depth study of historical records in the state. Two main emphases of this study were state and local records. The report of this study called for increased cooperation between the State Archives and the Department of Administration to address joint concerns, further expansion of the State Archives' visibility in all areas of responsibility, and continued support for the functions performed by the State Archives. A specific success of this study was a project funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and completed by the state Department of Administration to write general records retention schedules for counties, cities, school districts, and townships. The State Archives cooperated fully in this joint endeavor and the visibility of the archives program was enhanced throughout the state.
In 1985, an administrative reorganization within the Minnesota Historical Society merged the State Archives into the new Division of Library and Archives. Planning began for the construction of a new facility for the Minnesota Historical Society that would consolidate its library and archival collections into one building. With completion of the Minnesota History Center in 1992 this goal was realized and the State Archives holdings were moved into it during 1992. During this same time the Legislature mandated that the records disposition panel promulgate standards for the storage of government records on optical disk (Laws, 1990, c. 506). A report from the panel, distributed by the Society, was presented to the Legislature in December 1990; revised guidelines were issued by the Society in 1994.
The Society undertook a strategic planning project in 1994 to study its State Archives program and recommend goals to guide the program as electronic records and other new media become more prominent in government agencies. This process resulted in a new program model focusing on the integration of electronic records and traditional, paper-based records into a comprehensive program. Custody of archival records would be where it is most appropriate for that series to reside. Extensive agency collaboration would result in archival records being identified, preserved, and accessible for research use.