Saving history Record preservation dirty, vital
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.