Meet Nate Smith, Chief Archivist of the Boston Planning and Development Agency

by Clare Snyder

The BPDA’s model room houses a 1:40 inch scale, physical, basswood model of Boston’s downtown and portions of Beacon Hill, the North End, Charlestown, Back Bay and the South Boston Waterfront. The Agency hosts tours of the Model Room every Wednesday at 10 AM and 11 AM in two 30-minute sessions. Reservations are required for tours.

The Boston Planning & Development Agency (BPDA), formally known as the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), was established in 1957 by the Boston City Council and the Massachusetts Legislature to be the city’s official planning agency, taking over the responsibilities of the Boston Housing Authority. The BPDA’s archives work to preserve and make accessible the permanent and historical (at least 50 years old) records of the BRA. The BRA formerly had a library and a full-time librarian, but was at some point dissolved and a portion of its collections was given to the Boston Public Library. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that the BRA established their archives. Some highlights of the archives’ holdings include Urban Renewal records, City Planning records, and early aerial photography of Boston.

For the past three years Nate Smith has served as BPDA’s Chief Archivist and Records Manager.  He began as the sole Records Manager, when there was no differentiation between records and archives. As Nate assessed the collection, he started to carve out records deemed archival material, having permanent historical and research value, and his job description expanded to encompass archival duties. Many of the archives’ oldest records from the early and mid-20th century were indanger of deterioration and in need of immediate attention. The situation led Nate to decide the best way to process the records were from oldest to newest.

As he steadily processes the archives’ records and establishes archival collections to be made accessible to the public, Nate is making strides to reach out to the public. It wasn’t until six months to a year ago when the archives was finally able to establish their own webpage within the BPDA’s website. Nate is using the webpage to present the agency’s material in a more clear and public manner, and will showcase the institution’s finding aids and inventories once they are created.

The lack of visibility and online accessibility has been an obstacle for the archives. Currently, due to the narrow focus of the BPDA’s records and archival material, its audience has been limited primarily to real estate professionals or property owners, looking for information about properties impacted by urban renewal; media, looking for visual material of Boston; and students, doing research on subjects like urban renewal. Through Nate’s networking efforts, lines of communication and referrals between local institutions have helped steadily increase the public’s knowledge of the BPDA’s archives. For example, he reached out to the West End Museum to inform them the BDPA had records associated with the West End Urban Renewal Program for which to the museum to refer interested researchers.  The City Archives has also been a major partner for the BPDA archives, due to a good portion of the BDPA records and archival material being held at the City Archival Center.

Even though the BPDA is located within City Hall and some of their holdings are located at the City Archival Center, it is not a part of the city, receiving no funding from taxes. Its income derives from the real estate properties they own and operate.  Nate is planning to use the web page traffic statistics, especially when a few finding aids are made available online, to show interest in the archives and justify more directing more BPDA resources toward the archives.

For being the BPDA’s Chief Archivist and Records Manager for only three years, Nate Smith has accomplished a lot from creating archival collections to establishing a webpage to elevate the archives’ public profile. Nonetheless, an archivist’s job is never done and Nate has a vision for the archives to be as accessible, approachable, and relevant as possible to the city government and general public.