Behind the Constitution Wall overlooking the courtyard of the California State Archives Building, at 10th and O streets—where the ghostly gray letters of the word RIGHTS, six stories high, leap into view when the sunlight hits just right—lurk the vast holdings of the California State Archives. On each of the archives’ six floors, aisles and aisles of shelves are stacked high with historic records from agencies of the state government. For Rebecca Wendt, who works here as an archivist, they are the ideal dig site for a former archaeologist who hates working outdoors.
“Although I loved archaeology, I’m not so into the manual labor that it requires,” she admits. “I was more into the lab work. Digging in papers is a little bit better for me.”
There is plenty of that here to keep her happy. Her work desk is currently weighed down with several boxes of records from the California Highway Patrol. Wendt must sort through them and separate the disposable from the historically valuable. Judging from the smiles and laughs that constantly punctuate her speech, she loves her job.
Besides digging in papers like the other archivists who work here, Wendt wears another hat that makes her unique. She coordinates the California State Government Oral History Program, a collection of taped and transcribed interviews with more than 300 men and women who have shaped California politics since the 1950s. It makes her, at the age of 32, the guardian of a rich political heritage: a living history of California government as told by the people who made it happen.
Wendt explains the program this way. “We are interested in gathering oral-history interviews with people who have been movers and shakers in California government . . . people who have been in constitutional offices, people that have been heads of state agencies, people that have been in the trenches. A lot of things happen in government that nobody writes down, and there’s an institutional knowledge that people are carrying around in their heads. If they’re not interviewed, we won’t know what has really happened in state government.”
Wendt doesn’t conduct the interviews herself. That work gets contracted out to oral historians from Sacramento State, UC Berkeley, UCLA, California State University, Fullerton, and Claremont Graduate University. They may be the ones who get to pick the brains of our public servants, but it’s Wendt who decides who the interviewees will be.
Who’s next on her list? She hopes to catch up with former Assemblyman John Knox, who was influential in land-use planning and authored the California Environmental Quality Act of 1970. The choice reflects the program’s focus on key issues affecting the state, like water and transportation, rather than famous personalities.
The oral history program was officially born in 1985, through legislation signed by then-Gov. George Deukmejian (who, ironically, declined to be interviewed for it after leaving office). But its roots go back much further, says Wendt.
“The program is an offshoot of a program that was started at UC Berkeley in the 60s, when they wanted to document various governors’ administrations after they had left office. They wanted to interview all the staff, all the people that knew the governor, the governors themselves, and get a big picture of what was going on in California state government at the time. So they’d have the Earl Warren History Project, they had the Pat Brown History Project, they had the Ronald Reagan History Project, the Gov.[Goodwin] Knight History Project, just to kind of take snapshots of California history during that governor’s administration.”
Bound volumes of the transcripts are shelved in the State Archives research room. They offer a wealth of insight to legislative staffers researching the original intent behind legislation, and to professional and amateur historians who want to know what goes on behind the scenes.
A self-described history buff, Wendt listens to the tapes whenever she can find the time. “I’ve enjoyed hearing about some of the behind-the-scenes deal-making sort of things that have been in some of the interviews that you’re not going to find out about in any of the official records. I’m always really surprised about how much people are willing to open up. They know for a fact this is going to go into the State Archives, it is going to be a public record, and it’s absolutely fascinating how well people remember things and in such detail, and how they could just call it up like that and talk about it for hours.”
But don’t get the idea Wendt wants to be cooped up all day. She loves the outdoors. She just thinks it’s no place for toil and labor. Gardening, camping, hiking, fishing and bicycling rank among her favorite leisure activities, and she’d ride her bike to work every day if weather permitted.
Wendt has traveled in Europe and throughout much of the United States, but has never lived any farther away than Davis. She earned her archaeology degree from UC Davis in 1995 and later worked as an archivist at both the Yolo County Library and Yolo County Archives (commuting to Woodland for the latter), before taking her current position in 2002.
Wendt’s parents are veterans of state government, having both worked for the Department of Water Resources, but it’s hard to imagine they ever dreamed of their daughter growing up to be an archivist. “I think they were possibly wondering what I thought I was going to be doing with the [archaeology] degree,” she says, “but I think they are happy that I’m working and seem to be happy with what I’m doing.”
It’s a line of work she’d recommend to others. “You’re not going to be rich, but it’s pretty interesting.”
If you’re curious to learn more about your former district representative, visit the fourth-floor research room at the California State Archives any weekday between 9:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., or on the first Saturday of any month. Ask for the California State Government Oral History Program transcripts at the reference desk. Abstracts of some of the transcripts, and a complete list of interviewees, are available on the Secretary of State’s website: ss.ca.gov/archives.