Picture a cramped, dusty basement covered wall-to-wall with wooden shelves and metal canisters holding 18th and 19th century documents. Now imagine climate-controlled stacks with metal shelves and documents housed in Hollinger boxes and acid-free folders. How do we as caretakers of history reconcile these two situations? West Virginia University’s Public History program and the Monongalia County Clerk together created graduate assistantships to provide the Courthouse with trained historians to implement a long term records management plan and offer students education funding and real-world experience.
Since 2013, WVU students have indexed the entire office’s collection of records across three locations, cleaned and rehoused countless materials, and created high-quality scans of 200 years’ worth of records. We joined the team in 2015 and began a new phase of digitization with the purchase of a Zeutschel flatbed book scanner. Initially, the prospect of scanning thousands of materials was daunting. We first did ‘book triage’ to determine which books had suffered the most damage and scanned them first in order to move them out of public access and into more permanent storage. Next, we scanned three series of records sequentially until we scanned through the year 1900. We have shifted priorities to a new set of books and special projects, but are continuing to scan, clean, and rehouse records.
As historians, we have grappled with balancing our knowledge of archival best practices and the unique needs of a county records room. We are stewards of both historical and contemporary public records and, consequently, we occupy a space between records manager and archivist. As part of the records management team, we oversee a record’s lifespan from its recording to, in some cases, its eventual destruction. In many instances, our records relate to each other in significant ways. The public, primarily lawyers, paralegals, or land abstractors, uses them differently than how historians use archival materials. Compared to a traditional archive, there is little barrier between the public’s access to documents in the record room. As public historians, we facilitate unique public interactions with historical records, while simultaneously ensuring their preservation.
Recently, we gave a talk about our work at the West Virginia Association of Museums Conference. This was an opportunity to reflect on four semesters of work and verbalize some lessons learned. We have found that substantial changes can be made to a collection with simple long term planning decisions regarding storage, digitization, and public access. To undertake a records management project such as this requires the long-term commitment of resources, but we’ve found that to be successful, we must adapt our desires as historians to the realities of our available labor, finances, and storage.
The WVAM Conference came as we wrapped up our graduate program and prepared to hand the project off to new students. Because this project requires performing repetitive tasks and strong attention to detail, it was often easy to miss how each task fits into our larger goals. Reflecting on the work we completed and looking toward the future helped us appreciate the progress we had made and affirmed the importance of our work.