HARRISBURG - When David Carmicheal was growing up in rural Ohio, he asked his father to build him shelves so he could display his historic artifacts, the Civil War bullets and other objects he collected.
Today, he has lots of shelves to manage - several miles of them.
Carmicheal took over as Pennsylvania archivist last month, overseeing 220 million documents. Among them is Pennsylvania's hallowed founding document, Penn's Charter, housed for now in a windowless tower next to the State Museum in the Capitol complex.
The bespectacled 55-year-old is considered a rock star in a field of professionals who tend to carry out their work behind locked doors and out of the spotlight.
During his tenure as Georgia's state archivist, Carmicheal was credited with establishing the "virtual vault," putting 1.5 million records online and leading national efforts on emergency management of priceless collections during disasters.
And - thanks to his keen concern for public access - he was instrumental in overhauling the image of the state archives as a closed society of history nerds and opening it to the public.
Pennsylvania officials hope Carmicheal will do the same here. His first order of business: supervising design and construction of the new $30 million state archives facility slated to be built a few miles from the Capitol.
James Vaughan, executive director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, hired Carmicheal to the $118,000-a-year job left vacant with the retirement of longtime archivist David A. Haury. He called Carmicheal a nationally recognized leader who is widely respected in the field.
The old state archives building, built in the Brutalist style, has long outlasted its original life span, Carmicheal said. It suffers from climate control problems that threatened centuries-old records, and, after 50 years of collecting, is bursting at the seams.
"It was state-of-the art when the IBM Selectric typewriter was state-of-the-art," Carmicheal said.
The imposing concrete structure lives up to the name of its architectural style, making it as welcoming to visitors as a prison. But the treasures housed inside are critical resources for scholars and the public - maps, government documents, vital records - that tell the story of Pennsylvania and the country, many dating from before the birth of the nation.
"So much of the history of our country started in Pennsylvania," Carmicheal said, sitting in his office in the museum building next door, its walls still bare, but its bookcases filled with history texts.
Fascinated by history
Carmicheal said he can't remember a time when he wasn't fascinated by history.
Growing up, he said, he took his first stand for openness in archives when, at age 10, he was forbidden to enter the genealogy room in his local library. So he wrote his congressman and soon received permission to enter.
He went on to study history as an undergraduate and earned a master's degree in history and archives from Western Michigan University. He worked as an assistant archivist cataloguing the papers of Jacob Javits, a U.S. senator and representative from New York, before taking a position running the archives of Westchester, N.Y., where he stayed for 15 years before going to Georgia.
Carmicheal has since served in advisory posts with the National Archives and the Library of Congress, and, after Hurricane Katrina, led a team that helped rescue and preserve damaged documents in New Orleans and fashioned a plan for future natural disasters.
In Georgia, he tackled the monumental task of digitizing reams of records so the public could search for information from their home computers anywhere in the world. He also made the building inviting to visitors by hosting "down home" family days to encourage genealogical research.
Carmicheal said he wants to do the same in the new building, combining green design, efficient storage, and an inviting public presence.
Carmicheal is revered among his fellow archivists, said Nancy Beaumont, executive director of the Society of American Archivists.
"What David did with the Georgia archives is a classic story in the archives world. He built it from not much into something very special," she said.
Among the volunteers who help archivists pore over and scan volumes of old records are members of the Pennsylvania Railroad Historical and Technical Society. Their interests lie in the history of the Pennsylvania Railroad, transportation, and industry.
The group's president, Bruce Smith, said many of his 3,000 members find gems all the time buried deep in the state files.
"Making things available in a digital format is critical," said Smith, a professor of veterinary medicine at Auburn University in Alabama. "It's thrilling being able to sit here at my desk in Alabama and do research in the Pennsylvania archives."
Just recently, millions of family history documents were made available for Pennsylvanians through a partnership with Ancestry.com, which scanned the records and made them available free on its website.
Still, Carmicheal said few things match the thrill of touching an original piece of history.
"Nothing is like seeing the actual document," he said, recalling a moment when he held an original photograph of the Wright brothers' first flight. "It sent shivers down my spine."
In the Vault
Here is a peek at some of the treasures in the Pennsylvania archives:
The oldest record is a 1664 series of "articles" that outline the privileges of the Dutch after the English takeover of the Mid-Atlantic region.
Pennsylvania is the only state to have a file of Civil War conscientious objector depositions.
There are 7.5 million birth and death records open to the public, deaths from 1906 to 1963 and births from 1906 to 1908.
There are 1 million photos.
There is one of only two known film clips showing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was stricken with polio as a young man, walking. The clip was featured in the Ken Burns PBS series The Roosevelts.
- Amy Worden