His Job Is History

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After 41 years at the helm of the Sacramento Archives and Museum Collection Center, James Henley is set to step down in October. But the historian has done much more for Sacramento than manage its archives.

It all began in 1965, when city historian and Sacramento State professor Aubrey Neasham first asked then-graduate student Henley to help him read archived blueprints. It was pretty exciting, recalls Henley, who was pursuing a master’s in history. I had not really heard of anyone actually working in the profession, actually working with history and not just teaching it. The office Henley came to work in was a three-person city department founded 12 or so years prior. Its focus was the Old Sacramento Historic District, which many years and restorations later became Old Sacramento. When Neasham retired as department head, Henley took over.

In 1978 or so, we found out that the old county courthouse was going to be torn down to make way for the new jail, says Henley. The building at Sixth and I streets had been used by the county to store records for years. Henley and his small office were tapped to sort and save the documents, and the SAMCC was born.

We have 5 1/2 miles of shelves now, says Henley. They’re packed with documents, photographs and objects, including part of a Gutenberg Bible, the city charter and a 3-inch-tall preserved grasshopper collected by a would-be gold miner crossing the Isthmus of Panama en route to Sacramento in 1849. The lack of record-destroying fires, common in other California cities, and what Henley calls the preserve and protect mentality of Sacramento have made the SAMCC collection larger than any other city’s in California and second in size only to the state archives. Housed mostly in a building off Richards Boulevard north of downtown, the collection also includes all of the news film shot by KCRA 3 from the mid-’50s to the mid-’80s and more than 5 million negatives from The Sacramento Bee. Among all these items, 60,000, including 30,000 photos, can be accessed via the Internet at sacramenities.com/history.

Henley’s preservation efforts have extended well beyond the collection. When redevelopment led to the destruction of downtown Victorians in the ’60s and ’70s, he oversaw the publishing of the book Vanishing Victorians, which spurred preservation efforts. The heartbreak of the Alhambra Theatre’s razing in 1973 galvanized the preservation community further, and Henley and the SAMCC helped with efforts to restore the Memorial Auditorium and the B.F. Hastings Building (which once housed the state Supreme Court chambers), get the Delta King back to Sacramento and establish the California State Railroad Museum. Henley says these are the accomplishments of which he is most proud. I got to do what I wanted to do, he says, and help the community.