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This city has real baggage, and soon a place to put it

Kristen Swett's job can feel old, really old, like the musty smell of a city library.

As an assistant archivist with Boston's City Archives, in the Archives and Records Management Division of the city clerk's office, she retrieves, researches, and records documents that date to the city's birth.

Ask Swett about Boston's first volume of city records, about passenger lists from ships arriving here during the Irish Famine, or about a 1777 John Hancock letter that denied Charlestown residents compensation for homes ravaged during the Battle of Bunker Hill, and she quickly points out their locations amid shelves and cartons at The Hemenway School in Hyde Park, the city's Archive Central.

But there's one thing she and other city archivists have a hard time finding here: space.

''We have filled this building from top to bottom," said Swett, whose fellow staffers are so desperate for space that towering file cabinets filled with the School Committee desegregation files from the 1970s have taken over the dark hallways. The building bulges with 38,000 cubic feet of city records and 7,470 linear feet of bound volumes under desks, in corridors, even bathrooms.

''We can't fit anymore," she said.

Like orphans waiting to be rescued, thousands of city records have called The Hemenway School, Charlestown Armory, and a Norwood storage facility their foster homes. Since 1989, the city had been searching for a single depository to house what are some of the country's oldest documents. With a tight budget and lack of affordable downtown space, the search rippled out to Boston neighborhoods. Now, for the first time, it's settled on one address.

The city closed last fall on the $8.5 million purchase of a building in West Roxbury at 201 Rivermoor St., a large warehouse-type structure near Millennium Park and West Roxbury High. The building, formerly owned by KeySpan Energy, would house all of the city's tax documents and student records dating back to 1822.

To be called the Boston Heritage Center, the repository would be a home for the thousands of books and newspapers kept by the Boston Public Library in storage areas shared by the city archives. The facility, to be occupied later this year, would house a reading room, exhibit areas, and an area for public meetings, said John McColgan, the city's deputy archivist.

The move west would also trigger a domino effect of vacant space at the former storage sights. The Hemenway School, for example, may be returned to educational uses, and the Charlestown Armory could be sold to a developer for new housing, city officials said.

''We are the city's attic," said Mary Bender, spokeswoman for the Boston Public Library, which fills 275,000 feet of shelf space at the Charlestown Armory and at a Norwood storage facility. Among items in the library's keep is a vintage 1879 book called ''Wired Love," about telegraph operators who connect through Morse code, as well as 100 rare dolls. ''We get a lot of materials that have historic significance [whose storage is] not as simple as storing a book," said Bender. ''That is why there is such a need for a storage facility."

But the trove's move to West Roxbury wasn't initially well-received.

At least one city councilor, Maureen Feeney, suggested last year that the archives be moved closer to the heart of the city to make it more accessible. Dorchester was one idea Feeney nominated, pointing out it is already home to the John F. Kennedy Museum and the Massachusetts Archives Building. (It's also the neighborhood she represents as a councilor.)

After visiting the proposed building, she changed her tune. ''But seeing the site itself, it was comforting," she added. ''It really is the perfect building for it. It has ample space, high ceilings and lots of windows. As the city gets older, this is not something that is going to diminish."

Mayor Thomas Menino agrees. ''We looked for many different sites in the city," he said last week. ''It's a space that worked for us. It's very significant that we are going to have one location in the city for the archives."

There was talk about moving the archives to the Ropewalk building in Charlestown because of its proximity to the Freedom Trail and the old Charlestown Navy Yard, but rehab costs would run too high, a city spokesman said.

Even though the city's founding was almost 400 years ago, the repository was established only in 1988, the year the senior George Bush took office as president. Former mayor Raymond Flynn ordered that temporary archives be made in school basements or city closets after a federally funded survey of the city's records in 1987 found that the city's system for storing priceless artifacts was inadequate.

At the time, records spread across the city like gas lamps. The Parks and Recreation Department, for example, stored records at Mount Hope Cemetery in Mattapan and the L Street Bathhouse in South Boston. Old records of Boston's Assessing Department accumulated in the basement of a East Boston courthouse.

In the meantime, Flynn ordered most of the archives be stored at The Hemenway School, a former one-story elementary, to which Flynn donated many items from his collection of gifts from his years in office. Those mementos include a signed Ted Williams bat and a large white fireman's helmet Flynn would occasionally sport during visits to firehouses.

Today, each of the classrooms -- two are air-conditioned for the more fragile items -- feature drawn shades to block sunlight. Lights remain off. Chalkboards serve as shelves. Cartons stack up to the ceiling of former boys and girls restrooms.

''You learn something new every day because people call with different topics," said Swett. She is part of a small crew -- three full-time city employees, a grant-funded full-time person, a part-time employee, and some volunteers and interns -- which serves anyone looking to research the history of a property, student records, maps, birth certificates, licenses, and voluminous City Council minutes.

Just about anything you find here has a story to tell or takes the curious on a journey through city history.

Among the historic holdings: the original minutes of the City Council from 1822-1989; Women Voter Registration Rolls from 1888-1920; Civil War military service records; and Boston Redevelopment photos, files, and plans from the 1950s.

The staff averages about 125 reference calls a month. Some inquiries tickle even the most veteran archivists.

McColgan remembers a few years back when ''someone called from Jamaica Plain and wanted to know why there was a clamshell in their backyard," he said. ''It could have been from a seagull. We didn't have anything on file alluding to clamshells in Jamaica Plain. It's really an example of the far-out kind of questions we get when the moon is full."

Visitors, about five a week by appointment, range from homeowners to students, and, occasionally, to the descendant of a major historical figure.

One of those visitors was John Quincy Jr., a descendant of former Boston mayor Josiah Quincy. For the 2003 book ''Quincy's Market: A Boston Landmark," Quincy Jr. used the Hyde Park facility for historical background and research.

The Hyde Park location is at the southern-most tip of the city, sandwiched between Milton and Dedham. It seems under-the-radar and fairly far from the heart of the city.

''People get lost all the time," said Swett, of those who trek to the center.

Looking at a map of the city and pointing to The Hemenway School's distance from the proposed West Roxbury facility, Mary McMillen, a preservationist specialist with the city, smiles.

''We are inching our way closer to the center of the city," said McMillen, of Charlestown.

Not many people even know about the archive's main home in Hyde Park -- a plain-Jane redbrick school house at 30 Millstone Road near Readville -- or the department's function.

Just don't call the archives division the ''L" word -- library.

''People confuse library and archives," said McMillen as she stood in the archives' reference room, a former principal's office at The Hemenway School. ''Libraries have published materials for the most part. Archives are more unpublished original documents."

It's an unglamorous job. Dirty too. Dust and sediment from the books collect and stain the staffers' hands. Red rot stains many of the materials.

''You end up washing your hands 10 times a day," said Swett, showing her dirt-caked fingers.

But the staffers take pride in knowing they are caretakers of the city's history, and in the unsung victories that come their way.

Staffers regularly scour eBay online and type in ''Boston" and ''documents" in search of any lost municipal records that someone may be trying to pawn online. Two years ago, the archivists stumbled on a purchase order signed by town selectmen, including John Hancock, authorizing supplies to a vendor on Rainsford Island in the early 1770s, McColgan said.

''This was a town record being sold on the electronic auction block," said McColgan. ''We got that back."

Johnny Diaz can be reached at

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