Monday, July 14, 2008 • 12:00 AM Comments ()

Records & Public Property: Trash or Treasure?

posted by Kate Navarra Thibodeau

Some recent posts, specifically Picture This: Participatory History on the Web, have caused a shiver to run up and down my spine, but only in regards to how it will affect the collection and keeping of soft, or online, records. While the historian in me regards the availability of historical images, videos, etc, online as a positive contribution to society (as well as the reciprocal contribution of the public's knowledge to the identification of historical photos), I am grasping at straws as how to best herd the digital information so it is available in a singular way.

While digital archives continue to challenge us, we should never forget that we still have to care for records and public property.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) recommends that Americans keep their tax records for anywhere from 3-7 years, depending on your tax situation. Many cities require all departments to keep financial records for 3 years, in case of a city-wide audit. Once I thought historians and keepers of public records should responsibly shed their innate pack rat syndrome.

A large renovation project on Wistariahurst Museum's Carriage House has recently provided me with an argument to keep all documents in perpetuity. As a staff, we had several pending questions: when was the house last painted? Is there a history of pest management in the archives? Who were the companies that provided work on the slate roof? Because until now, not many employees at the museum considered the house to be an artifact on which notes should be made, no one had answers to these questions. No previous director wrote a report on the work done to the roof in 1996. It is understandable, considering the workload, as well as much of the work being done by in-kind donations or volunteer clubs like The Beavers.

As I sat in the basement where 50 years of records sat and slowly picked through the hundreds of old purchase orders and thank you letters from our governing board to other non profit groups, the documents stored there began answering some of our questions. The exterior of the house was last painted in 1977. Both 1994 and 1998 were big years for squirrel infestations at the museum. After several costly boiler repairs in the late 1970s, we started cleaning the boiler annually. Student volunteers painted several rooms on the interior of the house in 1988.

I loved that my questions were answered, but it makes no sense to keep all records and public property in perpetuity.

Upon conducting a cursory search of resources, I discovered that there is no universal guide to determining how long to keep public records. It seems, however, that an institution's Record Custodian has several questions to answer when determining whether documents are trash or treasure: Does the record document an important part of the institution's history? Will it be a valuable resource to researchers many years from now? How often is the material used? What is the value of the information to daily work? Are there any external requirements to maintain the information by governmental or granting agencies? Does the record help to prevent a legal liability?

A more textbook approach to records management is presented in Information and Records Management by Mary F. Robek, Gerald F. Robek and David O. Stephens (New York: McGraw Hill, 1995). These authors suggest that: information should be retained if there is a reasonable probability that it will be needed in some future time; the retention policies should not expose an organization to risk; the retention period is most likely to be valid if it is based on a consensus of the opinions of people knowledgeable about the value of the information and the potential costs, risks, and benefits of its disposal; and finally, to avoid the 'every conceivable contingency syndrome' (which to all pack rats, in my opinion, will seem quite impossible). To add to the list, we also have to consider the costs of storing and maintaining the records.

In the case of the unknown date for Wistariahurst's last painting, I can only determine that staff should be responsible for recording what happens to the building, if not for themselves, for the future staff and a complete institutional history.

Amassing and storing public documents is one concern. What about objects and property? But to what extent can (or should) we save larger objects and property?

This is where practicality meets nostalgia.

A building built in 1782 can be saved while a 1920s building can be demolished. Where do we draw the line and whose responsibility is it? With only so much public and private money to be shared by many institutions, we have to make hard decisions. Is there a way we can save the idea and history of a building while taking its physicality away? If it is too expensive to heat and cool a building built in the 1920s, is it excusable that we save the history while redeveloping the building into something more practical? If we do that are we saving the important part? Is the important part sharing the history, perhaps by putting an exhibit in the lobby of the newly renovated or constructed building that describes the past uses of the building? Or adding a "history" link to the website of the company that occupies the building? What if we hold more public meetings to educate the community on the importance of preserving buildings before it is too costly for a city to continue to heat and cool it?

Awareness is our best bet for the future preservation of buildings, artifacts and documents.

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