When Eric Howard drives by the building at 4400 Shoal Creek Boulevard, he can’t help but think of Indiana Jones.
Specifically, the final shot of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the U.S. government loads the Ark of the Covenant into a crate and then carts it off into a vast warehouse, presumably filled with similarly sequestered treasures.
That’s how Howard envisioned the inside of the state-owned building tucked away off Shoal Creek.
“You know, you never knew what was going on in here,” he said. “It’s such a non-descript building – kind of low-slung back here...so it kind of led you to think there were secret things going on in here.”
Howard used to work down the street and long wondered what really goes on in there. So, he asked about it for our ATXplained project.
It belongs to the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, and it’s called the State Records Center.
I arranged a tour for Eric to see if we could crack open the mystery of this innocuous-looking building – to find the secrets hiding in plain sight.
We head in through a barbed-wire-topped, chain-link fence to the back of the building to Loading Dock #1. We ring a bell and head through a door marked “Authorized Personnel Only”.
The staff at the Records Center was very welcoming. We show our ID and sign in – standard operating procedure. With that, we’re in the heart of the Records Center. Rows of green shelving stretch the length of the warehouse, floor to ceiling, packed with tens of thousands of brown cardboard file boxes. There are 152,000 of them in this part of the Records Center alone, filled with papers.
“In this area, it is all paper,” said Michael Shea, the State Records Center manager. “We do have a couple of vaults with disaster recovery back-up tapes and servers. And also microfilm and microfiche.”
Eighty-three state agencies and two local governments store records at this facility. Each box has a label with just a little information on them, though it’s a little hard to tell what’s actually in the boxes from the labels. The filing system is random. A box of records from the Attorney General’s office may share shelf space with one from the Health and Human Services Commission.
“Basically it’s a layer of security, so that records are never placed all together in the same place,” Shea told us. “Basically, it’s impossible to find a record here without access to our system. Really only the folks who work in this building have that ability.”
We haven’t spotted any secrets yet – though, of course, we’re not allowed to open any of the boxes.
So I ask: Is there any secret stuff here?
“Yeah, there’s definitely confidential stuff in here,” Shea said. But most of that, he clarified, is because it contained personally identifiable information like Social Security numbers or birthdates.
“I don’t think there’s any government secrets here, put it that way,” he said. “But if there is, you know, I’d love to stumble on them someday – I haven’t yet.”
As we continued walking through the stacks of shelving, Shea tells us they control the temperature and humidity to protect the records. There’s a fire suppression system, of course – fire is “the enemy of the records center,” he said.
Most of the records here are not that old. Shea said they do keep some stuff for the Texas State Archives that go way back – some as far as the 1600s – but most of contents of these boxed are only a couple years old, stored temporarily until the records are allowed to be securely destroyed.
But you might wonder why all of this stuff is even on paper in 2018. Why not digitize all this stuff? While they do digitize some stuff, or put it on microfilm, it’s apparently more cost-effective to keep most stuff on paper.
“It’s actually a lot cheaper to store the records here for 10,15 years than it is to digitize them,” Shea said.
I check in with Eric – to see if this is living up to his expectations.
“Well, I’m glad somebody’s keeping all this stuff. It’s impressive in its scale and obviously the staff cares a lot about what they’re doing,” Eric said. “As a taxpayer in this state, I’m glad to see our records are being well-cared for.”
We keep walking. Shea shows us through some offices where workers are digitizing marriage licenses, putting them on microfilm for safekeeping. The machines they’re using actually aren’t even made anymore.
Then, it’s on to the other side of the center – another huge warehouse with floor-to-ceiling shelves stacked with brown cardboard boxes. The building houses 238,000 boxes.
We stop at a plain-looking door. This is the “Disaster Recovery Vault”, Shea said, a blast- and fire-proof room where the most important stuff is kept.
“I can’t say that necessarily state government could be revitalized from this room in particular, but I do know that some state government can be started from this room,” Shea said.
As Shea shows Eric toward the exit, there’s a pallet of file boxes with big red X’s drawn on them. These are records that will be destroyed, and, Shea said, the boxes have been checked and double-checked – just to be sure.
“Because that is truly the one thing you can’t turn back from. If you make a mistake in destruction, you can’t bring those boxes back,” Shea said.
There is another building next door, which houses the Texas Talking Book Program, a federally funded program that provides books on tape for people with visual impairments across the state. (It was also featured in one of the opening scenes of the 2006 Mike Judge movie Idiocracy.)
As we leave, I can’t help but think back to that Raiders scene when government officials squirrel away the Ark of the Covenant in a similarly expansive warehouse. Did we really see it all?
“Well, I don’t think we saw it all,” Eric joked. “Maybe four floors below here – they didn’t take us in. This is all a cover! All this we saw here ... this is all just an elaborate ruse to cover up what’s in the basement. That’s my story.”
He may be joking – but isn’t it more fun to imagine it that way?