Monday, June 19, 2017

Saving and preserving Arkansas county records

By: Dr. Lisa Speer, Arkansas State Archives Director

Arkansas courthouses hold some of the most valuable historical records in our state. Marriage records, early birth records, land deeds, copies of wills and probate records, naturalization records, military draft records, and school records are among the treasures usually found in the archives of county courthouses. Yet, perhaps no other type of historical record in Arkansas is as endangered as these local government records. Arkansas already has lost many of its county records due to disasters, both man-made and natural.  In the nineteenth century, courthouse fires unfortunately were a common cause of county record loss in Arkansas. Floods and tornados also have done their parts to threaten our public records. While improvements in courthouse construction and technologies like fire suppression systems have minimized the widespread damage caused by fires in earlier times, in many Arkansas counties today public records continue to be endangered.

A recent fire in the Lonoke County Courthouse resulted in thankfully only minimal damage to records held in a storage area, while in other state courthouses, records are housed in storage areas that, by their very nature, threaten their long-term survival.  These storage areas range from wet basements to attics, in which temperature and humidity fluctuates with the weather outside. The presence of vermin is not uncommon; booklice feast on mold and the starches in book paste, and moths and beetles tunnel through the pages of ledgers, taking bits of information with them. Arkansas county officials are often unable to tackle the monumental challenges of preserving their historical records due to limited funding and the difficulties that they face in finding time for “special projects,” while managing daily work.

insect-damaged ledgers

Recently, the Arkansas State Archives assisted one county with a tough records problem. Howard County Judge Kevin Smith and his staff partnered with the State Archives to tackle a challenge in the courthouse basement in Nashville. Recognizing that the situation in his courthouse basement was beyond the scope of what he or his staff could safely handle, and keenly aware of the need to preserve Howard County’s historical records, Judge Smith called on the Arkansas State Archives for assistance.
Jane Wilkerson, ASA Manager of Collections, Conservator Amy Minger and Dr. Lisa Speer visited the Howard County Courthouse earlier this year in March to survey the situation in the basement after a call from Circuit Clerk Angie Lewis. Lewis described a problem in the basement with records that had been wet; the March visit confirmed our worst fears – widespread damage from water and mold. The Howard County Courthouse, an attractive two-story Art Moderne-style building constructed by the Public Works Administration in 1939, was constructed over a natural spring.

mold-damaged ledgers
Precautions taken over the years by courthouse officials to manage water incursion into the basement had not been 100% effective; records kept in the basement had been wet and now were heavily infested with mold.

Fortunately, not all the county’s records were stored in the basement; most are housed upstairs in court offices and in a designated records storage room in the courthouse annex. Our preliminary survey of the basement records indicated that some of the moldy ledgers and file drawers housed records that Arkansas’s public records law defines as permanently valuable (A.C.A. Title 13, Chapter 4). We believed that the LDS Church likely had filmed some of the records decades earlier, but without checking each volume and each drawer against a list of microfilm holdings at the State Archives we couldn’t be sure. And, until such a survey was completed, Howard County could not move forward with the badly needed mold remediation of the basement. Unsure of how to move forward with what undoubtedly would be a time-consuming, dirty and expensive project, I turned to Department of Arkansas Heritage Director Stacy Hurst for assistance. Finally, the wheels began to turn.

Director Hurst agreed that we had a responsibility to work with the county to save the historical records housed in the courthouse basement. She provided support from Heritage for a disaster salvage company to perform an assessment on a select group of records to determine if they were salvageable.  I worked with Metro Disaster Services of North Little Rock to schedule the assessment, which took place on June 1. Metro was selected because they had experience working with historical records, and recently had worked with the Lonoke County Courthouse following their fire. Due to record-setting floods in Northeast Arkansas in late spring, Metro was unable to schedule the site work at Howard County any earlier than June; but, because the courthouse basement issue was not recent, the few additional months we had to wait seemed negligible.

Metro’s initial test clean of records indicated that, overall, the ledgers in the basement could be cleaned well enough to allow for microfilming. The Metro crew used a HEPA vacuum to clean the exterior covers, spine and text block of about twenty volumes.  They also vacuumed inside the front and back covers, and then wiped each volume down with a mold-retardant solution.

mold-damaged ledgers
mold-damaged ledger
Finally, the volumes were treated overnight with ozone to remove the smell of mildew. Unfortunately, the Metro crew discovered that mold was growing inside many of the volumes.  Almost all the test volumes showed evidence of mold growth inside the gutters of many pages. This confirmed what State Archives staff already suspected. While the volumes could be cleaned enough for microfilming, the original records were too contaminated to retain once copied. You see, mold spores don’t require a lot of encouragement to grow – too much heat, or too much humidity and suddenly, you have another outbreak.                                                  

While Metro was conducting the test clean, I reviewed the assortment of records in the basement.  I found voter registration records, prisoner lists, land surveys, tax assessments, lists of school district teachers, and records pertaining to postbellum cotton production. I knew the LDS church had not filmed all these records, which were potentially valuable to scholars and family history researchers.

Register of school directories, 1910s-1930s

With additional support from Director Hurst, this time from emergency conservation funds available through the Department of Arkansas Heritage, members of the Arkansas State Archives staff returned to Howard County the following week ready for work. Arkansas State 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 the County Records Retention Schedules, as well as a list of records already filmed by the LDS Church and available at the State Archives.

Dr. Lisa Speer examining a ledger
We worked in standing water of about 1 inch, either because of the natural spring that runs constantly in one corner of the basement, or perhaps because of the condensation dripping from the metal pipes running overhead. To protect ourselves from the black mold that covered the records, we wore protective gear – respirators, Tyvek suits, rubber boots, and nitrile gloves. Despite the cool temperature of the basement, we were quite warm!

Standing water in the basement
Jane Wilkerson, Dr. Lisa Speer and Elizabeth Freeman in hazmat gear

As we identified records that met permanent retention requirements and were not already filmed, we bagged them and carried them upstairs to load into the covered trailer we brought with us. The basement steps were steep and slick, and we lost count of the number of times we went up and down. Records that were not deemed permanently valuable or that were too far gone to save, received a red sticker to mark them as “casualties”.

mold-damaged ledgers
Each time I applied a red sticker, I felt a conflicting sense of grief for the information that would be lost and relief that I would not have to carry that volume up the stairs. Most the ledgers were quite large, and generally, we could carry no more than one, sometimes two, up the stairs per trip. By 3 o’clock in the afternoon, all the ledgers that met the criteria we’d established for the operation were out of the basement; but we knew we were not yet finished.

The basement contained two metal file cabinets, along with loose file drawers stacked along the top of ledger shelving. The labels indicated that the cabinets held documents like chancery court records, pension files, oil and gas leases, guardianship papers – records we knew we should save. On Friday, June 9, Jane Wilkerson and I returned to the courthouse, this time with staff members from the Southwest Arkansas Regional Archives in Historic Washington State Park, one of our agency’s two branch archives.

File drawers stacked atop ledger shelves
water-damaged ledgers
Archival Manager Melissa Nesbitt had visited the Howard County basement with me the previous week, but Archival Assistant Josh Fischer, employed at SARA for less than a month, had no idea what was in store for him!

Melissa Nesbitt and Josh Fischer

Once again, we suited up into our gear and prepared to head down into the basement for the last expedition.  As you might expect, the gear attracted much attention from folks visiting the courthouse.  We were compared to the Ghostbusters©, asked if we were there for a gas leak, and one person even asked if we were bee keepers! I promise you, there was no honey in the basement.

Josh Fischer, Melissa Nesbitt, Jane Wilkerson, and Dr. Lisa Speer

Fortunately, the third and final excursion into the basement only took three hours. Our crew worked quickly to identify drawers of records to save.  Unfortunately, drawers that were about two feet off the ground were rusted shut, so we could only speculate about the condition of the contents inside. We left the paper files inside the drawers to keep them in order.  Thankfully, the drawers were narrow and not very long, that is not heavy. We carried the drawers out of the basement two at a time in boxes until we ran out of boxes, and then we carried out the rest singly wrapped in the left-over plastic bags. We made sure we captured the moment of bagging the last drawer – this was mostly moment of celebration for us all. I say “mostly” because of the casualties – the records that perhaps had permanent value, but were too far gone to be saved. For an archivist, leaving those behind bites.

Melissa Nesbitt bagging the last drawer
The story doesn’t end here, and won’t be concluded for a little while yet.  We brought the loose records back to Little Rock, where we placed them in a climate-controlled storage unit.  Our crew will clean and prep those records for microfilming, while Metro Disaster Services continues to clean the ledgers, also in preparation for filming.  Once the records can be safely handled for filming, our crew will deliver them to a filming company out of state. While the Arkansas State Archives maintains a microfilming lab, we cannot risk bringing such a large concentration of contaminated records into our facility.  Once filmed, the negative film will be safely stored in the ASA microfilm vault, while access copies will be available for research in our facility and also for purchase.


So, what is the lesson to be learned from this saga? There are many. Probably the most important is that records you want to keep a long time need appropriate storage.  Basements and attics are not the best choices, nor are storage spaces near water pipes, windows, or in the vicinity of mechanical rooms. Cooler and drier is better, and clean is important. A second, important lesson is to act fast when you discover a problem, even a little one. The longer you wait, the harder and more expensive it may be to clean up, or it may not be possible to clean up at all.  And finally, don’t be afraid to ask for assistance when you need it.  This situation in Howard County was addressed because Judge Kevin Smith and Circuit Clerk Angie Lewis knew they needed assistance, and they knew the State Archives was the place to call for help. Thanks to support from the Department of Arkansas Heritage and the work of the State Archives staff, this story has a (mostly – there’s that word again) happy ending.  While we regret the need that took us to Howard County, we are glad to have had the opportunity to work with the courthouse staff on this cleanup, and commend them for their role in acting to save these important historical records for Arkansas!