Clerks of courts have a daunting task keeping up with the current docket in a society here cutbacks in funding are the norm. Maintaining records in optimum conditions is often frustrated by fiscal belt-tightening foisted upon the clerks by the county or state government that provides increasingly less support for the physical facilities where clerks are employed.
Ultimate responsibility falls on constituents and interested parties to prevail upon county and state governments to adequately provide for the preservation of our heritage.
According to a newspaper report posted online yesterday, Circuit Clerk Magaria Bobo explains Tuscaloosa County [Alabama] court documents will be scanned and destroyed, citing the delicate nature of old files.
However, the Library of Congress Digital Preservation Resources page warns “In many cases, digital materials are considered more fragile than physical ones. The files themselves can be easily destroyed or stored in a format that becomes obsolete.”
Scanning old documents is only part the preservation process and that it is not infallible. Originals must be available for review by historians when the scanned image is unreadable. An example is the case of US federal census records in the custody of the National Archives (NARA). Microfilm copies suffice for 99.44% of research, but on rare occasions, original census books for some years may be viewed when the microfilm image is too murky to decipher.
Ol' Myrt is under the impression that pre-1900 paper generally holds up better than newer paper, because the later is bleached white during the creation process, resulting in a higher acid content that causes premature aging. That is probably why there is a proliferation of products and processes to deacidify paper for long-term storage. However, the hot and moldy attic cited in the Tuscaloosa County court documents article is not conducive to prolonging the life of anything.
“Locked away in a seemingly forgotten room of the Tuscaloosa County Courthouse are hundreds of records detailing events in Tuscaloosa County’s past dating back as far as 1812.
All the documents stored on the seventh floor, or attic of the courthouse, are circuit court records. Many are handwritten in cursive penmanship on aged parchment that could easily crumble if not carefully handled.The specifics of the records vary, but a few are marriage licenses, divorce records, jailhouse records, family records, lawsuits and criminal cases.
For genealogist Karen Hunnicutt, who recently learned of these ancient Tuscaloosa records, they are more precious than Aztec gold.And that’s why she became quite livid when she found out the records were falling apart and slated for destruction.
Hunnicutt, 41, found the records while researching a historically prominent Northport family with local historian Marvin Harper. She said she was shocked at the condition of the records.“The records were somewhat disorganized and some were in complete decay," she said. “They’re supposed to be in a cool, preserved environment, not some hot, moldy attic."
For the rest of the story see Genealogist tries to preserve county records: Records dating to 1800s stored in courthouse attic by Jamon Smith, Staff Writer, DatelineAlabama.com July 23, 2007.
Thanks to Leland Meitzler of Genealogy Blog for staying up late and bringing this sad news to Ol' Myrt’s attention.
With little effort, Ol' Myrt was able to determine the Alabama Department of Archives & History has embarked on an Alabama County Loose Records Project and that Tuscaloosa County is listed as one where the filming project has been completed, per color-coded map dated 05/07. However, attempts to determine bibliographic references to records groups in this microfilm preservation project failed. Calls to the Alabama Department of Archives & History office (reference desk) this morning reverted to the “we are closed Sun & Mon” voice message. This is Tuesday and I had hoped for more.
Ol' Myrt is sending a copy of this blog entry to the following organizations with the hope that instruction and resources will be forthcoming.
- Records Preservation & Access committee a joint project of the NGS National Genealogical Society and the FGS Federation of Genealogical Societies
- Digital Preservation Board, Library of Congress
- Society of American Archivists
- Academy of Certified Archivists
- Association of Professional Genealogists
- Alabama Archives
- Bobo Family Association FamilyBobo@aol.com
Please note that the Tuscaloosa County, Alabama website is largely under development, and provides only a US Mail and telephone method for contacting the county probate judge and county commissioners. I will therefore address my letter to:
Tuscaloosa County Alabama
W. Hardy McCollum, Probate Judge & County Commission Chair
Bobby Miller, Commissioner
Reginald Murray, Commissioner
Don Wallace, Commissioner
Gary Youngblood, Commissioner
714 Greensboro Ave
Tuscaloosa, AL 35401
It is hoped that by shedding light on the plight of the Clerk of the court in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama that additional community resources will be forthcoming. This discussion may lead to effective documents preservation in other communities.
Note that in DearMYRTLE’s Family History Hour podcast to be released later today, New England Court Records author Diane Rapaport, explains that many times court records are no longer kept at local county courthouses. In the Ohio, the Library of the Ohio Historical Society is also the State Archives of Ohio. There are also eight branches of the Ohio Network of American History Research Centers. In Missouri, the counties have turned over all death records to the Missouri State Archives. Would that all governments would agree with this organization’s policy statement:
“The Missouri State Archives is the official repository for state records of permanent and historical value. Its mission is to foster an appreciation of Missouri history and illuminate contemporary public issues by preserving and making available the state's permanent records to its citizens and their government.”