Public Records Fail; or, Seeing with New Eyes

The current issue (Fall 2011) of the Society of Ohio Archivists newsletter has two great articles in it about Ohio county governments doing a good job with public records management and preservation. Specifically, Licking County recently (beginning in 2008) developed a comprehensive records management program, and Montgomery County tackled (and overcame) some massive preservation challenges (beginning in 2006).

I know we have some great records management programs in Ohio, the ones I am most familiar with being in Montgomery County and Greene County. Both of those counties have a “records center” where older, historical records are kept, but with more recent records being kept in their creating offices (e.g., Auditor, Recorder, Courts, etc.).

With having seen so many good examples and with all that I’ve learned in the past 5 years about preserving old records (through proper handling, environmental controls, and security measures, just to name a few), it definitely makes me cringe when I see inadequate care of records.

The example that comes to mind as I write this is from a visit I made several weeks ago to one of the county offices of an Ohio county that shall remain nameless. I had visited this particular county office many years ago and viewed some records there, and I was curious whether everything was still as I remembered it, now that I could look at the place and its records with “new eyes” (educated, professional eyes).

I walked into the office, which was rather busy, and waited my turn. When the girl said, “Can I help you?” I said something along the lines of, “I was here several years ago to look at some naturalization records, and they let me go up to the loft” – motions to the loft storage area above our heads – “to look at the books. Do you still let people do that?” She said yes, and I asked if it was all right for me to go on up, and she said, “Yes, do you remember where they are?” And I said, “Yes, if they’re still back in that far corner,” and she nodded, and off I went up the stairs into the loft.

I remember the first time I was there, those many years ago, thinking to myself, This is great; they’ve just turned me loose in their records room, so I can look at whatever I want, without having to bother anyone or wait on them to fetch it for me!

By contrast, this time, I was thinking, Oh dear God, they just turn people loose in their records room, unsupervised! What if somebody disorganizes things, or (worse) steals something?  I had a purse and a notebook with me, by the way, and nobody took any notice. What was to stop me from tearing pages out of ledgers, folding them up, and stuffing them in my purse or my notebook? (Nobody checked my stuff as I was leaving either.)

Now, I wouldn’t do that, because…well, lots of reasons…one of which obviously being that it’s wrong to take things that don’t belong to you (that’s Kindergarten 101); and not the least of which being my respect for the historical record and the fact that if I want to look at this record, there’s a good chance that someday someone else might, too! But someone else might not think of these things or might not care.

When I got up to the loft, it was pretty much how I remembered it. The naturalization books were standing up in a bookshelf in the far corner of the room, just like last time.

Other things that were probably just the same as last time but which I hadn’t zeroed in on before: it was hot up there; there were pipes directly over the naturalization books (and when I say “directly”, I mean less than 2 feet above them) – though it was hard for me to tell what the pipes contained so maybe it wasn’t as bad as it looked; and there were large windows a couple of feet away, which probably weren’t nice, well-insulated windows covered with UV-film, and which were definitely leaking sunlight and heat into the area.

And then I got over to the corner and began looking at the books. Several of them had loose sheets — like, not even attached to the book anymore. (That would make theft all the easier: hey, no ripping paper sound!) Some of the loose pages seemed out of order. Some of the pages (particularly the loose ones) were in bad shape, particularly on the edges. These books were being stored on their edges, rather than flat, and they were really not in good shape to be standing on edge.

Hey, I get it, money is tight. It takes money to do all of this stuff right — it takes a lot of money. Archival supplies and environmentally controlled, secure facilities aren’t cheap. But it made me wonder, was it just a lack of money, or was it maybe also a lack of knowledge and training?

I found the records I was looking for — and clearly, a lot of other scary stuff I wish I hadn’t seen — and then went back down to the main floor. I waited to speak with someone again. When it was my turn, I asked the girl (different girl this time) whether the county had any kind of a records center. She didn’t seem to understand what I was asking, so I rephrased. At that point, she said that each county office was responsible for its own records — ah, so the short answer is, No, there’s no central county records center. When I asked who was in charge for that department, she gave me the person’s name but said she was at lunch and therefore unavailable.

I made a mental note to possibly contact the woman in the future, but I admit I have not done so. I guess the simplest reason is, What would I say?

There’s just something about calling out of the blue to point out inadequacies that they are probably already aware of…that I just don’t think would go over too well.

Fellow archivists and records managers, if you have any pearls of wisdom on this one, I’d be glad to hear them. Would you say something, offer suggestions, offer to help, just ignore it and assume they know but can’t afford to do anything about it?

A little piece of my inner archivist dies when I see places like this and am powerless to try and fix it.

One response to “Public Records Fail; or, Seeing with New Eyes

  1. There is no easy answer for this. I’ve been saying for almost 3 years (3rd Anniversary next Saturday) now that books have to be stored binding down or flat and I daily have to go through the Research Room selves and re-position books. Sometimes it is a lack of funding and time. But I also think, that it’s indifference. It’s just a book, it has no value, your just wasting your time. I get this all the time. It’s hard to teach people who really don’t care that that book is just as, or more important than a 200 year old toaster. You might find another 200 year old toaster at some point, but that book, photograph, document, deed, ledger, taufschein…will NEVER be seen again unless a little care is given. Care and tenderness is for free and goes along way in preservation than a $43.00 box of folders. Its hard and something we will fight until the day we retire.

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