Sav­ing his­tory

Record preser­va­tion dirty, vi­tal

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - LISA SPEER Dr. Lisa Speer is the Arkansas State Ar­chives di­rec­tor and Arkansas state his­to­rian.

Arkansas court­houses hold some of the most valu­able his­tor­i­cal records in our state. Mar­riage doc­u­ments, early birth records, copies of wills and pro­bate records, nat­u­ral­iza­tion files, mil­i­tary draft records and school records are among the trea­sures usu­ally found in the ar­chives of county court­houses.

Sadly, Arkansas has lost many of its county records due to both man-made and nat­u­ral dis­as­ters. Arkansas county of­fi­cials are often un­able to tackle the mon­u­men­tal chal­lenge of pre­serv­ing their his­tor­i­cal records due to lim­ited time and fund­ing.

Such was the case in Howard County. Rec­og­niz­ing that wa­ter dam­age in the court­house base­ment was be­yond what he and his staff could safely han­dle, Howard County Judge Kevin Smith called the Arkansas State Ar­chives for as­sis­tance. The Ar­chives part­nered with County Judge Smith and his staff to tackle the court­house base­ment in Nashville.

The Ar­chives was first alerted in March by a call from Cir­cuit Clerk Angie Lewis. The Howard County Court­house build­ing was con­structed in 1939 on top of a nat­u­ral spring. Prior pre­cau­tions to man­age wa­ter in­cur­sion were not com­pletely suc­cess­ful, and the base­ment records were now wet and heav­ily in­fested with mold.

Our pre­lim­i­nary sur­vey of the records in­di­cated that some were what Arkansas’ public records law de­fines as “per­ma­nently valu­able” (A.C.A. Ti­tle 13, Chap­ter 4). I col­lab­o­rated with the Ar­chives’ par­ent agency, the De­part­ment of Arkansas Her­itage, on how to move for­ward. Di­rec­tor Stacy Hurst and I agreed that we had a re­spon­si­bil­ity to save the his­tor­i­cal records. She al­lo­cated dol­lars for a dis­as­ter sal­vage com­pany to per­form an as­sess­ment.

The sal­vage crew used a HEPA vac­uum to clean the ex­te­rior cov­ers, spine and text block of about 20 vol­umes and then wiped each vol­ume down with a mold-re­tar­dant so­lu­tion. The vol­umes were also treated overnight with ozone to re­move the smell of mildew. The crew also dis­cov­ered that mold was grow­ing in­side many of the vol­umes. While the vol­umes could be cleaned enough for mi­cro­film­ing, the orig­i­nal records were too con­tam­i­nated to re­tain for fear of fu­ture mold growth.

When re­view­ing the as­sort­ment of records, I found voter registration records, pris­oner lists, land sur­veys, tax as­sess­ments, lists of school district teach­ers and records per­tain­ing to post­bel­lum cot­ton pro­duc­tion. With ad­di­tional sup­port from Di­rec­tor Hurst through emer­gency con­ser­va­tion funds, Ar­chives staff mem­bers Jane Wilk­er­son, Archival As­sis­tant El­iz­a­beth Free­man and I worked for seven hours on June 7, pulling ledgers from rusty shelves, in­spect­ing their con­di­tion and con­tent, and com­par­ing them against lists of records al­ready mi­cro­filmed.

We worked stand­ing in about one inch of wa­ter wear­ing pro­tec­tive gear—res­pi­ra­tors, Tyvek suits, rub­ber boots and ni­trile gloves. As we iden­ti­fied records that met per­ma­nent re­ten­tion re­quire­ments and were not al­ready filmed, we bagged them and car­ried them up­stairs into a cov­ered trailer. Records deemed un­able to be saved re­ceived a red sticker to mark them as “ca­su­al­ties.” Each time I ap­plied a red sticker, I felt a sense of grief for the in­for­ma­tion lost.

By 3 p.m., all the ledgers that met our cri­te­ria were out of the base­ment, but we knew we were not yet fin­ished. The base­ment con­tained three cab­i­nets’ worth of loose files con­tain­ing chancery court records, pen­sion files and guardian­ship pa­pers—records we knew we should save.

On June 9, Jane Wilk­er­son and I re­turned to the court­house, this time with staff mem­bers from the South­west Arkansas Re­gional Ar­chives, Archival Man­ager Melissa Nes­bitt and Archival As­sis­tant Josh Fis­cher. For­tu­nately, the fi­nal ex­ca­va­tion only took three hours. Col­lect­ing the fi­nal drawer was a mo­ment of cel­e­bra­tion.

We have brought the loose records back to Lit­tle Rock, where archivists, preser­va­tion­ists and the sal­vage crew will con­tinue their work, all in prepa­ra­tion for film­ing. Once filmed, the neg­a­tive film will be safely stored in the Ar­chives’ mi­cro­film vault. Ac­cess copies will be avail­able for re­search and pur­chase.

What is the les­son to be learned? First, you must store im­por­tant records ap­pro­pri­ately. Cool and dry is bet­ter, and clean is im­por­tant.

A sec­ond im­por­tant les­son is to act fast when you dis­cover a prob­lem. It may be harder and more ex­pen­sive to fix the longer you wait.

And fi­nally, ask for as­sis­tance when you need it. County Judge Kevin Smith and Cir­cuit Clerk Angie Lewis knew the Ar­chives was the place to call for help. Thanks to sup­port from the De­part­ment of Arkansas Her­itage and the work of the Ar­chives staff, this story has a happy end­ing.

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