The perilous state of local records

“When old records are lost or destroyed, so is our history.”
–Mark Wolf, Executive Director, Texas Historical Commission

Mr. Wolf is quite right. The above quote appears in “Courthouse Cornerstones,” the “2015 Update on the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program,” as part of his broader discussion of the need to preserve county courthouses in part to ensure the ongoing protection of local government records. These records are of immense historic value as Mr. Wolf goes on to state: “These records hold not only vital information, but are some of the earliest known histories of Texas.”

We have long recognized and been concerned with the status of local records in Texas. Almost twenty years ago, former State Archivist David B. Gracy authored a call to action on the topic titled, “Too lightly esteemed in the past” (TSLAC, January 1996). In that report, Dr. Gracy described a situation where state and local records are threatened by a lack of resources for preservation, poorly housed collections, staff untrained in records handling, and a chronic undervaluing of the crucial nature of public archives.

More recently, in 2011, the Texas Court Records Task Force, commissioned by the Texas Supreme Court, delivered a study entitled, “Report on the Preservation of Historical Texas and State Court Records” (August 31, 2011). That report stated that in many counties in Texas, “records are decaying or being destroyed due to a confluence of events and condition, including (i) improper storage and handling, (ii) the effects of moisture and temperature fluctuations, (iii) the ravages of rats, bugs and vermin; and (iv) the acidity of the ink and poor quality of the paper.”

Our agency is mandated to advise state and local governments on the proper preservation and management of public records. However, the seven professional government information analysts that perform this service carry a load of over 150 state agencies and over 10,000 units of local government. It is not enough staff and there is a constant backlog in providing meaningful support and guidance to state and local agencies.

To address this situation, we are seeking new funding in our budget request to hire two additional government information analysts to help ensure that the important records of state and local government are protected, maintained, and accessible to the public. This effort is recognized and supported by numerous organizations including the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas and the Texas State Historical Association.

As our budget winds its way through the approval process, we will take every opportunity to inform legislators of the importance of records to preserving the history of the state and the crucial role our agency plays in that effort.

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