An Appeal for
Future Generations: West Virginia Historical Records Strategic
Compiled by the West Virginia Historical Records Advisory Board1
Public Documents are the materials for the historian. Without such a collection he, however much inclined, can never do justice to a State. Nor without them, can its people ever have an accurate knowledge of the founding and growth of their institutions; nor of their own development in governmental affairs, educational and other interests. Not only this, but posterity can not have the means of judging, as it might, of the deeds, and principles of action, and of the legislation of ancestors. Thus the State that neglects to preserve its Public Documents, loses much to future generations-to the whole world indeed.
-Virgil A. Lewis, State Historian and Archivist, 1908
In 1991 the West Virginia State Historical Records Advisory Board (SHRAB) received a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) to undertake a statewide assessment of the condition of historical records in West Virginia. Surveys were sent to state, county, and municipal officials who hold records and to historical repositories, seeking information about their holdings, conditions, and needs. From these surveys, statistical information was compiled and provided to Richard Belding, director of the Public Records Division of the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives. Based on his draft report, the SHRAB developed a state assessment report and a strategic plan to address records problems. The strategic plan details the background of and recommendations for six key records issues over the next three to five years.2
Some historical records are kept under truly appalling conditions. The older and more historic records usually receive the least care. Even those that are cared for are threatened. In one courthouse, the old court cases were stored in the best place in the building-a vault. On opening the boxes, however, one quickly becomes aware that other problems exist. In this case, and it's not uncommon, the insides of the old case boxes were covered with coal dust from the days when the building was heated by coal furnaces.
Goal: Increase public awareness and understanding through a continuing communications campaign.
Background: There is a lack of concern for historical records and a lack of awareness of their administrative and research value. Many West Virginians are unaware of the challenges which confront public officials, archivists, and records managers in managing and preserving records of continuing value. With competing needs and obligations, public and private organizations have been able to provide only limited financial resources to meet these challenges. A better case must be made for this support.
A lack of support for or public awareness of the importance of historical records and their needs is one of the most important factors placing these resources at risk. It is clear the SHRAB can play a key role in raising the awareness of many constituencies to the records problems existing in the state. This advocacy is, in fact, one of its central roles. The SHRAB should make the public aware of the problems faced by those who preserve West Virginia's records and the importance of documentary resources. These efforts must also be directed toward those who provide support to such programs.
Older records at the Braxton County Courthouse are stored in a loft, accessible only by a fifteen-foot ladder. One courthouse stores some of its records in a shed, shelved with gardening supplies. Throughout West Virginia's courthouses, older records are commonly stored in basements and attics, with inadequate, if any, climate control or fire detection systems. In addition, the records stored in basements have frequently suffered insect, mold, or water damage.
Goal: Take needed statutory, regulatory, or administrative steps to implement fully a comprehensive program to meet the archives and records management needs of publicly funded agencies at the state and local levels.
Background:The state's records management program has been inactive for some years and many significant problems faced by state and local government records managers owe their origins to this. Current, accurate records retention schedules are unavailable for many agencies. Agency personnel are uninformed on the proper disposition of records and records are being destroyed without reference to schedules. Agencies' decisions to store records off site are being made without accurate schedules. There is a clear need for technical assistance and training in basic records management. Agency records managers need clearer authority, support, and assistance to carry out their charge.
The process of inventorying, identifying, and analyzing government agency records, leading to the creation of records retention schedules, has not been consistently carried out. The existing schedules are not current, and at present, there is no reliable mechanism for updating or deleting information. As a result, there is no systematic way to identify records of administrative, fiscal, or legal value. Likewise there is no method of determining which records possess informational or historical value and require preservation in an archival setting.
There is no consistent basis for deciding which records merit off-site storage (for a fee), which records should be scheduled for transfer to the State Archives or other approved repositories, and which may be destroyed at a fixed point in time. Most existing schedules are not implemented regularly. Consequently, significant quantities of records are retained beyond their useful life, both in government offices and off-site storage. This leads to administrative and program inefficiencies, as well as frustration among staff and the general public. It also places vital records at risk. The absence of controls results in higher information management costs in an environment of increasingly limited resources.
Survey responses clearly indicated a need for specialized staff training in archives and records management. Staff in publicly funded agencies at the state and local level need training in retention schedule development, files management, records storage and handling practices, electronic records management, and disaster-preparedness planning. State agency personnel indicated they were not sufficiently aware of the state's Records Management Procedures Manual or the West Virginia Code references to agency records.
Many records in government offices or historical records repositories are inaccessible to users due to an absence of management controls or a lack of finding aids. As more records of continuing value are created in automated formats, archivists and records managers need to develop new skills to deal with electronic records and the challenges to access and preservation which they present.
Inadequate funding has placed historical records in peril of rotting out of existence. At the McDowell County Courthouse in Welch, grand jury case files for C. E. Lively had been stored in a basement room which was also used to store old civil defense supplies. Lively and other Baldwin-Felts Detectives allegedly murdered Matewan police chief Sid Hatfield and Ed Chambers in 1921, sparking an armed miners' march and the Battle of Blair Mountain.
The Lively file has now been saved from the termites which have ravaged most of the other records in the basement. Today, the remaining court documents remain inaccessible because of the lack of resources to make these historical materials available for research.
Goal: Provide training and education to archivists, records managers, and others charged with managing and preserving the records in their care. Include in that training the archival and records management implications of electronic records.
Background: There is a clear need for basic and specialized training in archives and records management, in both public and private repositories. Access to information, management, and preservation of records is impeded by limited knowledge of inventory techniques, collection management policies, and arrangement and description practices. Staff training needs include retention schedule development, files management, storage and handling practices, managing electronic records, and disaster-preparedness planning.
All surveys identified a need for specialized training in archives and records management. This is an area which should be addressed early by the SHRAB, as it will provide substantial, continuing benefits. The SHRAB should sponsor training opportunities on a regular basis with other organizations, including associations of local government officials, attorneys, and others with a continuing interest in the use and availability of records.
Goal: Secure appropriate space for the storage of important historical records and ensure their proper identification, preservation, and accessibility.
Historical repository surveys revealed a considerable quantity of unprocessed and under-processed collections. At the beginning of the project this included the John Warren Davis Papers at the West Virginia State College Archives. Davis, president of the black college founded under the provisions of the Second Morrill Land Grant in 1892, gained national prominence as an educator during his tenure, 1919-53.
Just prior to the publication of this report, the collection, consisting of 106 linear feet, had been processed in 286 boxes with a printed guide of 46 pages. The project was made possible through a significant grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities which included a challenge requiring the institution to support the position of college archivist. The project has made the invaluable papers of this educator, statesman, civil rights advocate, and author accessible for research.
Surveys revealed that access to adequate records storage facilities was a major concern. Funds currently available to deal with existing historical records challenges are inadequate. Only a small proportion of publicly funded agencies use record format conversion strategies, like microfilm or optical disk.
Responses suggested that increased microfilming or other format conversion of original records would be appropriate. Budget constraints were the principal obstacle to the wider use of format conversions, though limited access to professional micrographic services/standards was cited as a problem.
For public agencies, storage needs are closely linked to an effective program of records retention scheduling and implementation of appropriate schedules. Without these tools, storage requirements cannot be accurately projected and records which could be microfilmed cannot be accurately identified. Consistent, uniform quality control of the microfilm is critical to ensuring both the longevity of the record and its credibility as evidence. Such standards should be set and monitored by the state records management program by administrative code. This would ensure the integrity of the record, in whatever form, and its long-term maintenance, preservation, and availability for research.
Goal: Develop sustainable funding strategies to ensure the preservation of West Virginia's documentary resources.
Background: Funds currently available to deal with existing historical records challenges are inadequate to the task. Records are not receiving proper care or storage due to budget restrictions. Consistent communication is required among funding agencies and those who create and use records. They must consider the importance of well-managed information resources and records with long-term preservation needs.
Goal: Encourage improved bibliographic controls which ensure ready access to historical records while maintaining the integrity of collections. Background: Many records in government offices or historical records repositories are inaccessible to users due to an absence of management controls or a lack of finding aids. As more records of continuing value are created in automated formats, archivists and records managers need to develop new skills to deal with electronic records and the challenges to access and preservation which they represent.
1. The West Virginia State Historical Records Advisory Board consists of Mr. Fredrick H. Armstrong, State Coordinator, State Archivist and Director, Archives and History, Division of Culture and History, Department of Education and the Arts,Charleston; Mr. Nathan Bender, Head of Special Collections, West Virginia University Libraries, Morgantown; Ms. Margaret Brennan, Research Consultant, Wheeling; Mr. Lisle Brown, Curator, Special Collections, Marshall University, Huntington; Ms. Betsy Castle, Preston County Circuit Clerk, Kingwood; Ms. R. Jeanne Cobb, Archivist, Archives and Special Collections, T. W. Phillips Memorial Library, Bethany College, Bethany; Dr. Ronald Lewis, Eberly Professor of History, Woodburn Hall, West Virginia University, Morgantown; Ms. Linda Little, Municipal Clerk, Morgantown; Dr. Stuart McGehee, Archivist, Eastern Regional Coal Archives, Craft Memorial Library, Bluefield; Ms. Elizabeth Scobell, Library Director, Drain Jordan Library, West Virginia State College, Institute (retired), St. Albans; Dr. William D. Theriault, Historian, Bakerton; and Mr. David Tincher, State Records Administrator, Department of Administration, Charleston.
2. The West Virginia Historical Records Assessment Project was funded in part by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). In addition to the Strategic Plan, the SHRAB also produced a more comprehensive Records Assessment Report, detailing the project history in greater depth and listing further recommendations for the preservation of West Virginia's documentary heritage.
For a copy of a the entire West Virginia State Records Assessment Report, please write to Archives and History, The Cultural Center, 1900 Kanawha Boulevard East, Charleston, WV 25305-0300 or visit the SHRAB web site
West Virginia History Journal
West Virginia History Center