Dick Eastman posted an important story on his blog today. It concerns the destruction of records by the Clerk of Court for Franklin County, North Carolina. The records had been forgotten in the cellar over time, and covered a period from the 1840s through the 1860s. You can read more about what happened in a story by the Heritage Society of Franklin County.
This story is sad, but can be used as a cautionary tale. Records languish, forgotten in basements, attics, and storage areas in courthouses, city and town halls, and other government repositories. There are a number of reasons why this happens.
In most instances, it is not an intentional effort to hide records. The problem begins with a lack of proper storage space. Many government offices are small, out of date spaces. With all of the government cutbacks, there is often not enough money to pay for proper office supplies, let alone the furniture and space for the proper storage of records.
With the lack of space, government offices and agencies will find places to store older, little-used records. Often records are separated and placed in multiple locations. And these locations are not good for long-term storage, such as basements and attics.
Records languish and are forgotten because there is no need to access them on a regular basis. When government officers and employees are replaced, institutional memory goes with them. New employees may have no idea the records even exist, let alone where they are located.
When the records are found, there is a tendency to think that they are unnecessary, and to get rid of them. Unfortunately, a major issue is a lack of understanding of what records are important for genealogists and historians. Even archivists are not always aware of what “valuable” records are.
There are several things you can do to help save these records. The first thing to do is to educate the custodians of the records. The reason why so many of these problems happen is a lack of education. So teach them, for example, why dog registrations are valuable genealogical records (because they establish the presence of a person in a particular location at a particular time and place). Don’t try and do it alone, though.
As an individual, no matter how nice and friendly, it will be more difficult and challenging for you. Get your local historical and genealogical societies involved in the process. Work together to come up with a plan to educate government officials.
It is best to approach them in a friendly, non-threatening manner. Explain that other jurisdictions have had major problems, and you want to work with them to get their needs met before any issues arise in your area. And that is the key: approach them BEFORE a problem arises. Working with them this way is much easier than the adversarial positions that occur when trying to resolve issues in the heat of a controversial problem. Then you can make it a win-win scenario for everyone!