Our heritage at risk: Maintaining local government archives
By John Slate and Kaye Minchew
Local governments of all types — counties, municipalities, school districts, water districts, transportation authorities and industrial development authorities — create records. Our daily lives are reflected in local government records that tell us about ourselves and about others, whether they are civil and criminal court records, deeds, marriage, estate, and tax materials, or many other types of permanent records..
Why even keep archives? To paraphrase Bruce Dearstyne’s points in The Management of Local Government Records: A Guide for Local Officials, “Archives are important to the study of history…Archives protect the rights of individuals and provide transparency…Archives protect the assets of local governments…Archives save governmental departments time and money in everyday operations.” Local government archives also protect the rights of citizens and are a part of a local identity.
The records originally created by a government were made to serve as evidence of transactions. By preserving public records created by governmental bodies as archives, local governments preserve institutional memory and evidence of transactions, as well as the context related to the activity. Information about the past informs our decision-making now and in the future, and a properly operated local government archives promotes efficient and accountable government. Public records and archives also create transparency, which is a cornerstone of democratic values.
Archives form a wealth of information that local residents, historians, genealogists, government officials, attorneys, surveyors, legal researchers and others use regularly. In too many cases, archival records in local governments across the nation have accumulated over the decades and centuries with little thought to their preservation or long-term care. Local records, despite their significance, are typically among the most neglected records in the nation.
Historians and archivists have decried the lack of adequate care for historical records, yet staffs in local governments continue to face many challenges in their preservation. Lack of staff and funding and — perhaps worst — lack of administrative support make caring for archives difficult and sometimes unmanageable. Indifference and neglect are reflected in misfiling, damage, and even outright destruction. Without proper storage and environment, it is little wonder that the crisis in local government archives has remained untamed.
In an ideal society, every government would have a formal archives and would care for their permanently valuable records, making their contents available for public and internal use. Local governments must realize they have both a legal obligation to take care of permanent records, as well as a moral obligation to citizens and researchers to make their archival collections open and transparent. We hope local governments across the country and the world will start thinking about how important it is to care for records of permanent and enduring value.
Trained archivists coming from information studies and history programs are great and a worthwhile asset to any local government. Not all budgets can warrant or support such a position, however. With only a few exceptions, most local government archives programs are still staffed by non-archivists and often as one of several duties. Often, people suddenly have responsibility for caring for local government archives with very little archival education or training.
Education is the key, regardless of position. Records management professionals, paraprofessionals and clerical staff can still learn the basics of preservation and access through free and low-cost training offered at the regional and state level. In today’s world of webinars, online training and workshops, there are few good excuses for not ensuring that our invaluable local history is secure and accessible for the researchers of today, tomorrow, and beyond.
John Slate is city archivist for the City of Dallas, Texas where he has been responsible for historic city government records in the Dallas Municipal Archives since 2000. Kaye Minchew is a consultant in archives and historic preservation and served as Executive Director of the Troup County Historical Society in LaGrange, GA from 1985 until 2015.. Kaye and John are co-authors of Managing Local Government Archives.