The Central State Hospital Archives Project started in 2009 as an unfunded project in the College
of Liberal Arts at The University of Texas at Austin. The project was initiated at the request of
Charles Davis, MD., director of Central State Hospital (2007). He was concerned that their
historical documents were at risk of deterioration from being kept in a non-archival environment.
Under the Virginia Records Retention Act of 1972, the Library of Virginia is the legal repository
of these types of records held at CSH. However, the relationship of the Library to the hospital
was limited and interpretation of the Retention Act unclear. Over the course of the project, the
Library has become an active and supportive collaborator, providing access to its archival files
on CSH and participating in a privacy roundtable meeting on historical psychiatric records.
In its first six years, the project obtained operational funding ($75,000) from the National
Association of State Mental Health Program Directors and the President of The University of
Texas at Austin ($75,000). The project used the initial funding to locate, restore, catalog and
digitize (external contract) the 800,000 paper documents and 10,000 photographs maintained at
the hospital. However, micro-film copies of historical treatment records were not included in the
digitalization project. Our major funding source would not provide funding for digital copying.
In 2015, generous funding ($763,000) was obtained from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
enabling the archives project to address the intersection of increased access and maintenance of
privacy of historical psychiatric records. The archives project sought to determine how the
application of critical policy analysis, contemporary digital library technology, and archival
research and preservation methods combined to assist a state mental hospital system to update
their traditional approaches to competing policy issues of increasing access, maintenance of
privacy standards, and retention of historically significant mental health records, documents,
photographs, and legislation. Initial work to identify, collect, preserve, catalog, copy, and
analyze the contents of the archives illuminated how the multiple issues of race, slavery,
segregation, unscientific predictions of the prevalence of illness, and treatment science were
managed in historical literature, public policy and mental institutions. The archives project
received its final year of funding from the Mellon Foundation in 2018.
The archives project collected, copied, and analyzed patient, organizational, and policy data from
Central Lunatic Asylum for Colored Insane (renamed Central State Hospital in 1885) as well as
survey findings from multiple states and academic scholars to address five complementary
activities supported by funding from the Mellon Foundation:
1. Analyze state and federal laws on access, privacy, and confidentiality of historical mental
health records, documents, photographs, and legislation; and, compare Virginia laws with
2. Develop a conceptual model for digital mental health records including policies and
procedures for ingesting records, storing these in a dark archive, assessing the sensitivity
of these records and migrating records for use by different stakeholders;
3. Apply digital technology to create a dark archive and digital library that serves as a
proof-of-concept implementation and demonstrates the viability of this model which
balances need-based access for various stakeholders with privacy of historic records and documents to house the historical mental health records, documents, photographs,
legislation, and findings from surveys.
As the project advanced, we included two additional activities that are essential for
conceptualizing the interface of privacy policies and digital technology to create a dark archive
and digital library useful to a variety of stakeholders.
4. Survey and analyze the digital infrastructures within state archival agencies to determine
their readiness and staffing to digitally store and manage access to restricted historical
mental health records, documents, photographs, and legislation; and, determine current
digital capability of each state;
5. Collect and analyze data on admissions of African Americans to Central State Hospital
from 1868 to 1941; compare 15 variables routinely collected at admission;
Substantial progress or completion of each of these outcomes has been made over the three years
of grant support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.