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History shipped east


It was 1987. I was the editor of the The Union newspaper in Arcata, affectionately known as The Onion. (The late publisher, Craig Hadley, used to doodle in the top of the U in Union.) The newspaper had been sold the year before by the Hadley family, who owned it for half a century, to a pair of investors from the Bay Area. They -- I still call them the interim owners -- hung on to the Union for about two years before realizing that newspapering wasn't an easy way for them to make a buck. They sold it in 1988 to Patrick O'Dell, owner of the Humboldt Beacon in Fortuna, who ran it until it ceased publication in 1995.

This is a story about photographs and those interim, absentee owners.

Near my desk was a bank of file cabinets filled with old photographs and negatives, part of the history of the city-town of Arcata and its people in images. One day the new publisher -- on a whim, I'm sure -- told me to clear out all the old photos and dump them in the trash. I was more than alarmed, but this was the same publisher who periodically cleaned his own desk by sweeping everything on it into a trash can and starting over. When I saw him do it once he said, "If there was anything important in those piles, someone will contact me again." (He never had any file cabinets of his own during his almost two-year tenure.)

With some other quick-thinking employees, we started boxing up the contents of the file drawers and immediately got on the phone to Peter Palmquist. We didn't know what would ever happen to those photographs, those "slices of history" as staff writer Bob Doran calls them in this week's cover story. We just knew they needed to be saved and Palmquist was our best hope.

Last year Palmquist had to make a similar decision and it could not have been easy. He chose to sell his entire collection -- including 85,000 images of Humboldt County -- to Yale University.

Some people in this community, especially those involved in historic preservation and research, are understandably upset. Those images that Palmquist collected over the last three decades, given to him by families and other sources including The Union, have been shipped to the East Coast and will be off limits for a time or at the very least, they will be extremely inaccessible.

It is our hope that in presenting this story, it will open up a dialogue on the issue of access. How will our authors and researchers, how will families doing genealogy work, have access to the information in those photos and in the handwritten notes that are often on backs of them?

I want to be clear that I don't believe Palmquist is the bad guy in this story. I think readers will agree once they read about the logic that lead him to his decision. But there needs to be a plan for access. If not, Humboldt just lost access to a sizeable chunk of its history.


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