If you pay attention to the archives and records management world on Twitter, you may have seen a news item make the rounds over the past few days. The story concerns the discovery and disposition of a cache of documents dating back to the mid-19th century in Franklin County, North Carolina. In lieu of retelling the entire story, I will offer this bulleted list:
- New Clerk of Court discovers leak affecting storage in basement
- Basement is full of documents, dating between 1880s and 1960s (although I’ve seen claims of the 1840s and the 1820s as the earliest dates)
- Documents are mold-infested and water damaged.
- Local historical society volunteers perform some assessment and inventory.
- County government contacts State Archives of NC, who requests inventory.
- Based on inventory, State Archives identifies 15 boxes of materials to be added to archival holdings—either through rehabilitation or stabilization and reformatting
- Other documents are identified as nonpermanent or transitory records that had previously been scheduled nonpermanent by the Archives in 1964. As per NC public records statutes, nonpermanent records, upon reaching the end of their retention period, may be destroyed or retained by the owning agency. Because of the extreme water and mold damage, a state archives staff member recommends destruction.
- Franklin County agencies destroy remaining documents.
(This is heavily summarized timeline that unfolded over months. For more details, please read the following:
- WRAL news
- Raleigh News & Observer news
- Stumbling in the Shadows of Giants blog
- The Grey Area blog
- Kevin Cherry in the NC Department of Cultural Resources blog)
The incident has incensed genealogists, historical society supporters, and historians interested in local history. While some have called foul and inferred conspiracy from the destroyed records, the overarching tenor of the outrage is rooted in the county’s destruction of the records despite the fact that volunteers had pledged to take on the rehabilitation and/or reformatting. I don’t plan on engaging in the discussion over the feasibility or cost vs. benefit of such an endeavor. Likewise, I don’t find it worthwhile to contribute to an argument between professional archivists on one hand, and one of our primary constituencies on the other.
From a records management standpoint, the whole saga highlights a few items, chief among them the missed opportunity communicating the value and importance managing the records life cycle. Dr. Cherry makes an excellent point in his letter to the editor: “Not every piece of paper can be saved from every government office in North Carolina without creating an undue burden on government offices and taxpayers.” Unfortunately, the words come as damage control, and will never carry the weight they might have had the notion been introduced under less charged circumstances. From what I’ve read, the State Archives acted within their purview, selecting the unique government records with permanent retention periods for their collections and identifying others as transitory or otherwise nonpermanent records that had been scheduled as such decades previous. They may have recommended destruction of the other documents due to health and safety concerns, but the state archives have made clear that the ultimate disposition decision belonged to various agencies within Franklin County.
Another issue highlighted by the destruction of the materials is the considerable knowledge gap regarding the difference between institutional and government records and personal or family papers. Any records manager or institutional archivist worth their salt can delineate between official records—those materials created during the transaction of everyday business that document the activity of a body, state, or individual—and papers created that may convey some sense of a person, family, or body but do not satisfy the relatively stringent criteria set out by records policies. We have a hard time conveying that knowledge to the public. This is true even (especially?) when that public is made up of those concerned with the legacy of a particular place. At least part of this is due to the morass and blurring of terminology related to archives and records.
Those upset with the destruction and the manner in which it occurred point to the fact that the State Archives made their recommendations without a complete knowledge of the basement’s contents. Records managers walk a fine line in this regard. We are tasked with making decisions about vast swaths of material and rarely (if ever) have the opportunity to inspect everything item-by-item. We have documented procedures, years of education and training, and professional standards that aid us in our work. At the end of the day, however, we have to make decisions and convey confidence to our constituencies (whether they be corporate, government, education, or otherwise) that our decisions are correct. Having that confidence in our expertise is only half the story; the other half is conveying that confidence and knowledge to the public, in other words: managing the message. The trouble in the case with the Franklin County documents lies in this latter half.
I often get frustrated with the number of calls for greater outreach to the public. I’m more than a little frustrated that I’m ending on that note here. A few friends in the archives world have mentioned variations on this being a teachable moment for records managers and archivists and the constituencies they serve. As the furor over the destruction seems to have shifted toward the county government that carried it out, I wonder if that moment has passed.