A History Unmasked: Part One

This three-part series will be covering my experience as I was able to see the process of archiving history in The Old Governor’s House, and most importantly, how that affects historic St. Augustine as a whole.

By Nora Heyser | gargoyle@flagler.edu

Armstrong must wear gloves while delicately handling old photographs.

Most people in the St. Augustine area know of the Old Governor’s House, the historic building on the corner of Cathedral Place and Cordova street. But inside of this building is a treasure trove of digital history, chronicling St. Augustine’s rich archival collections and background.

These archives have been collected over the centuries, as St. Augustine is the oldest city in the United States, and is filled with information on how these structures are preserved. Preservation is the driving force to collecting it all and using it to ensure accuracy in historic portrayal.

As I walked into the building, I couldn’t help but notice the archaic structure, and the magnificence of a building able to stand the test of time. Luckily, I was there to meet two people to help me understand the process of history, and what it takes to discover the narratives that brought it to reality.

Matthew Armstrong, archivist in Governors’s Library.

On the second floor of the building, behind an industrial style door, there is a room walled with ceiling-height shelves and mapping filing cabinets, covered in labels that read “Spain” or various dates from the 1800s to the 1980s. I met with Laura Marion and Matthew Armstrong in this room, filled with historic documentation.

Marion is the project archivist at the Governor’s House Library, and the room we were in was what housed all the vast information and archival material that makes up the collection in the library. It was an office of sorts for them both, to discover and analyze.

“My job is to organize all of it into a structure that not only makes sense to me but also makes sense to researchers that are going to come in and be looking for things,” Marion explained as she looks around at the room. It’s filled with archaeological reports, files, photographs, architectural drawings, maps, and administrative files from the organization that created the collection. She said that she just finished organizing the collection of maps, and her next step is the architectural drawings.

The maps and drawings of St. Augustine that are collected span from the early 1800s to the 1980s–some of them are new and consist of modern technological imaging, and some of them have older features and an aged appearance, though maintained with care and lamination. There needs to be this difference in age, they said, because it allows for more accuracy and depth to the information of the entire historic sphere of St. Augustine.

Armstrong, a Flagler alumnus, does similar work with the artifacts from different times in history.

“We have a lot of the artifacts in the building here, or in off-site storage, so I manage that part of the collection, similar to how Laura is organizing and creating a finding aid,” he said. He also works with digitization equipment to be able to put up as much information and artifact imaging as possible online, to be accessible to people across the globe.

Armstrong and Marion pointing out old features in a base map for U.S. geological survey, for the tax assessor’s office to determine building locations.

The process is bumpy, as they explain a brief synopsis of those who have pushed preservation along over the years. The original organization was a state agency called Historic Saint Augustine Preservation Board, but when it dissipated in the mid-’90s, the University of Florida took the position of collecting and organizing. Now U.F. manages and has stewardship with a team of others. Marion and Armstrong both work through U.F. and are able to work with the information and archives in the Governor’s Library.

Armstrong explains that as people, communities, and historical understanding grow, the narratives change, information becomes more inclusive, as we not only want to know about one person’s role but everyone’s role in what we all know as a highlighted point in U.S. history. More is found and understood as we grow as a community.

The information is boundless, and contain the contents of a history so rich and palpable. One thing that Marion and Armstrong stress is the availability of it all, not only to researchers but to Flagler students.

That is a point that they both make — that the large collection of maps, drawings, writings, images, and physical artifacts at the fingertips of anyone who wants to understand the rolling history of St. Augustine, especially to those students who have a desire to be more knowledgeable about their own backyard as they study within the walls of Flagler College.

Laura Marion, Governor’s House Library archivist.

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