History of the Alabama Department of Archives and History

Alabama created the first state department of archives and history in the United States. Founded in 1901, the Alabama Department of Archives and History became a model for many other states.


The movement to create the Alabama Archives represented a convergence of three cultural interests. The progressive movement, then spreading across the United States reflected an interest in improved education which would foster a better informed and more civic-minded citizenry. Progressives were also interested in better information for public officials to help them in decisions on public policy issues.


The second interest was the desire to preserve the material documenting service to the state in the Civil War. Through the 1890s, the feeling of a need to honor those who had served the Confederacy grew increasingly stronger. This memorial movement led to the establishment of patriotic societies, the erection of monuments, and the creation of the Department of Archives and History as an institution in which key documents and artifacts could be preserved. Over the years since 1901, this mission has broadened. The department now seeks to ensure the preservation of records and artifacts that can tell the story of all people who have contributed to the building of the state.


The third interest in the creation of the department was the need to preserve the materials necessary for understanding our history. By the turn of the twentieth century, the state of Alabama was over eighty years old and had accumulated significant bodies of historical material. Yet, there was no formal system for preserving that material and making it available for research. Also, with the growth of schools, the increase in the number of professional historians, and the professionalization of historical training and education came an expanded recognition of need for a facility where this historical material could be studied. By supporting this research and the dissemination of information about Alabama's past, the department has sought to promote a more complete and accurate understanding of Alabama history.


Thomas McAdory Owen, founder and first director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History


Thomas McAdory Owen, founder and first director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History


These three interests were simultaneously embodied in the person of Thomas Owen, the driving force in creating the Alabama Department of Archives and History. Owen argued that the state has a responsibility to preserve the basic records of its people and its history. He served as director for almost 20 years and built the Alabama Archives into one of the most important cultural agencies not only in Alabama but in the United States.


In this original agency were the beginnings of the public library movement in Alabama, efforts to improve history education, a reference service for the legislature, research on and the marking of significant Alabama historical sites--all functions now performed by other agencies--along with other historical activities that continue to be carried out by the department.


Thomas Owen was succeeded by his widow, Marie Bankhead Owen. Under her leadership, the department continued to expand its collections. Mrs. Owen also continued her husband’s effort to secure a new archives building.  The Archives had originally been housed in the old Senate Cloak Room, and it moved into the new South Wing of the Capitol when that addition was finished in 1906.  In 1918, Thomas Owen conceived the idea of a new archives building on the block across from the Capitol as a “living memorial” to Alabamians who sacrificed their lives in service to the nation in World War I. 


Although Thomas Owen’s initial fund-raising efforts were not successful, Mrs. Owen was later able to secure funding for a new building through the Works Progress Administration of the New Deal.  Since her effort was a resurrection of her husband’s dream of a World War I memorial, the words “Alabama World War Memorial” are over the south entrance.  At the time of its dedication in 1940, the new Alabama Archives building was one of the largest and most outstanding state history centers in the United States.


During the years after the new building was opened in 1940, some programs were separated administratively from the department, while other responsibilities were added. The Alabama Public Library Service (responsible for assisting local libraries) and the Alabama Historical Commission (responsible for marking and preserving historical sites) became separate state agencies. Records management responsibilities for both state and local governments were added to the department's mandate.


Unfortunately, in the years after the department moved into its new building, its status as a national leader among state history organizations waned. State funding did not keep up with the changes in the size of government, the increase in collections, constituent demands for services, or the growth rates of archival and museum programs in Alabama's sister states. Despite efforts of department staff through four decades, the department was unable to keep up with the responsibilities before it. By the late 1970s, Alabama's archives, museum, and records management programs were far behind those of other southeastern states.


Beginning about 1980, the governor and the legislature began to provide new funds for strengthening the department's programs. New staff members were hired, and the collections management and educational programs of the department were substantially strengthened. In the 1990s, however, budget cuts resulted in a substantial program and staff reduction. Services that have been especially affected include:


  • microfilming historical newspapers and documents
  • acquiring private manuscripts and artifacts
  • developing new exhibits
  • cataloging and preserving the material already held by the Archives
  • providing assistance to local repositories and local historical organizations across the state
  • staffing the reference room and answering research inquiries.

Some of these reductions are in programs and services the department has provided for almost a century. While financial resources have been decreasing, the state's records and artifacts that need to be preserved are increasing and also becoming more complex. Today's archivist has to deal with records in computers, on video and audio tape, and on numerous types of film--as well as increased quantities of more traditional materials.


Despite dwindling financial resources, the department is attempting to continue the following programs as priority services:

  • assistance to state agencies and local governments in the preservation of their records of historical value
  • work to preserve modern records in fragile formats, such as computer records, photographs, and video tapes
  • basic educational programs and tours to school children, tourists, and interested citizens
  • basic reference service
  • maintenance of the security of collections held by the Archives
  • the use of new information technology to extend the department's services.

This web page is one example of that commitment.


Now in its second century of service, the Alabama Department of Archives and History is mindful of its obligation to preserve the records of its past and to serve the information needs of future generations of researchers.