Without Gregory Sanford, Vermont history just wouldn’t be the same.
For 30 years, he’s been the state archivist, preserving, organizing, cataloging and pondering the documents that underpin the existence of the state we call Vermont. He’s been equal parts crusader and visionary, enthusiastically at home in an arcane, fascinating field that is distant from most of us — and yet, ever-present in our lives. For without our history, what are we?
That question has been the beating heart of his body of work ever since he joined state government in 1982, tying him to three decades whose changes in his chosen field — thanks to technology and tectonic shifts in thinking — proved to be as dramatic as a change from Vermont winter to summer.
On Aug. 1, he’ll leave the official duties behind with his retirement and move on to creating trails and gardening on his Marshfield property, convinced now at the age of 65 is the right time to step aside.
“It’s just the way my mind works. I can’t adequately describe or understand the technology that can move us to the next level,” he says. He calls his replacement by his deputy Tanya Marshall “brilliant at several levels,” citing especially her grasp of the evolving technological changes in archiving material.
The ensuing media hoopla that has erupted makes him “colossally uncomfortable.”
“I’m particularly bored with Greg Sanford,” he says, then graciously allows a long interview.
Few others are, though, which is not surprising when considering his impact and impactful appearance, well known around the Statehouse and circles of the capital. With his long sweeping beard, now white and reminiscent of Gandalf in “Lord of the Rings,” and tall build (now gained a certain rotundity), Sanford has always been a striking figure who puts the lie to the idea government is filled with faceless bureaucrats.
Let alone anonymous bureaucrats. He has been a passionate advocate for public access to documents and for making records easily accessible, honored by his peers for his efforts and with the Matthew Lyon Award from the Vermont Press Association in 2011 for his “lifetime commitment to the First Amendment and the public’s right to know.”
Sanford’s sharp mind spews mile-a-minute quips, wry asides and self-deprecating humor as it brings his work down to earth in language anyone can understand. His monthly columns “Voice from the vault” often put that on display, trying to disguise, he jokes, the boring substance they dealt with.
“I used to take myself very seriously in the beginning,” he says. “Then I realized I come with the full set of human foibles.”
And, he adds, “I think humor breaks down barriers.”
That this Connecticut native who got a degree in history from Washington College in Maryland and a master’s in history from the University of Vermont ended up as archivist was sort of a fortuituous fluke. In fact, in 1982 Vermont didn’t have an archivist.
“I was hired as something called editor of state papers,” he explains.
A fellow named Jim Douglas and his deputy Paul Gillies had something to do with that. Douglas, now an ex-governor, was at the time secretary of state and Gillies, now a municipal law expert, interviewed Sanford for the position.
Sanford imagines the conversation Gillies had with Douglas this way: “I saw this guy — he may be a little weird, but he looks like he could do the job.”
Sanford, who lives in Marshfield with partner Ondis Eardensohn and has two grown children, came to Vermont in 1971 to visit friends in North Fayston in the back-to-the-land hippie days. Or as he puts it, “Once upon a time I wanted to be a country cow-freak hippie.”
He ended up milking the academic world instead and by the time Douglas hired him, had history pretty much running through his veins, having studied with legendary UVM history professor Samuel Hand working on an oral history of equally legendary Sen. George Aiken, which left him “fascinated with Vermont politics.” He also worked with noted oral historian and author Charlie Morrissey and at MIT.
But his editor’s job, which was to annotate and publish 18th century Vermont records, came with no staff and no authority to do much.
While humble about his accomplishments, that Vermont now has a massive modern archival records warehouse in Middlesex with some 97,000 banker boxes all bar-coded is no minor feat.
When Sanford came on board, Vermont was the last state in the nation not to have a state archives. Worse, for Sanford, was that he did his job in the basement of the Pavilion office building, not the best place for records that ranged the 1777 Vermont Constitution to priceless papers from Thomas Jefferson and Ira and Ethan Allen.
“Not only was it below the floodplain, there were no windows,” he recalls. And there were high pressure water lines and sewage lines.
“It was not what one would consider an ideal archival space,” he says wryly.
From there the state’s archives moved to Montpelier’s historic Redstone building with the secretary of state’s office, again to a basement but at least on a hill well above flood level — and a 10th of the size needed.
A key piece of Sanford’s work has been convincing the Legislature and state officials to merge disparate public records functions into the Vermont State Archives and Records Administration, established by the Legislature in 2008. A critical impetus was the increasing digitization of records and the complex issues that raised, says Sanford. He also was driven by a strong desire to “unlock” those records for the public.
The archivist’s job is pretty simple at the most basic level: What do you save, and what do you throw away. It’s a problem anyone who’s ever moved has faced.
It gets really complex when you’re a state.
“Quite frankly, not all records are equal,” he says. Managing what to archive, and the technology of it, still animates him, he admits, noting that he’s been known to go on “about things archival.”
The complexities of records and record keeping have undergone enormous expansion in recent years, forcing probing thought by agencies like his with limited resources. Records, he notes, once were vellum and parchment, then paper and photocopies. Now in ever-more rapid progression we have migrated onto tapes and floppy discs and CDs and who knows what’s next. He cites a figure that 5 percent or 6 percent of all the energy used in the world is used by computers.
His office now has 13 full-time and several grant positions, including four people whose sole job is to try and figure out rational ways to decide what to preserve and how to manage and preserve it with document management systems.
Sanford admits it can sound “boring as hell” but the historian in him flips back to the excitement in it all, even after 30 years.
Archives, whether records of court decisions or governor’s thinking or policy decisions, are all about “context” and he can cite example after example where he went into archival records that provided perspective that informed modern debates, from civil unions to fuel shortages to methane digesters and universal health coverage.
“That’s part of what I wanted to do, to get the context out there,” he explains.
“To the degree that I touched people’s lives, yes, I’m very pleased I did my job,” he says.