The Archives of the People: Using Local Government Records

By Angela Ossar, Government Information Analyst

I’ve had the following conversation a few times over the years:

CALLER: Hi, I’m calling to see if we can do something about all these boxes that my office has never destroyed. Some of them go back to the ‘80s.

ME: Okay, sure.  What’s in the boxes?

CALLER: Like meeting minutes and annual reports?

ME: Oh.  Well….those are permanent records. So, it sounds like you actually should be keeping them.

(Awkward silence….)

Actually, we have some rules now for how to store them. Can I send you a copy of Bulletin F?

CALLER: (Long pause) “…….but these are really old.”

As a new analyst, I remember feeling apologetic whenever the answer to “How long do we have to keep this?” was “Forever.” After all, I know that protecting records is expensive.  I know that we’re all running out of space.  I know that destroying records is a great way to reduce costs and minimize legal risks.

But another reason we manage records is to make sure that records with long-term value are actually retained as long as they’re needed. Permanent records usually have permanent retention periods because they have long-term historical value.

So that’s why I want to recap an SSA 2014 session called “Digging Deep: Exposing the Historical Value of Government Records.” The session featured three municipal archivists:

Municipal archivists — professionals who preserve historical city records and make them available for research — actually get to see historical value in action.  They are the ones who help the public find and use historical city records. As you’re about to see, the array of research uses for municipal records is truly mind-boggling.

Jennifer Day (City of Oklahoma City)

City of Oklahoma City seal

City of Oklahoma City seal

Day talked about establishing the city archives (which was made possible through a NHPRC basic processing grant) and discovering the ways that city records illustrated the development of the city, such as:

  • Ordinances serving as a reflection of local societal problems. For example, “One bad deal with a band and then there would be a new ordinance:  ‘No parades.'” (This reminded me of the City of Georgetown’s RMO once finding an ordinance prohibiting flirting.)  Then, once the ordinance would pass, citizens would complain and petition for the mayor’s recall.
  • Contracts showing patterns of business in the developing city.
  • Other records of the City Council illustrating trends in public policy; for example, how the City dealt with transportation each decade.

Day said that she’d worried about the transition from being a manuscripts archivist (working with people’s own personal materials, like diaries and letters) to an institutional archivist (working with government records) — “I thought I’d be bored to tears.”  But, she said, the records she works with have turned out to be really interesting.

Amy Canon (City of San Antonio)

City of San Antonio seal

City of San Antonio seal

When Canon worked in the San Antonio Municipal Archives, she would often be contacted by K-12 history and social studies teachers who were hoping to bring history to life by using real historical records in the classroom.  So, she developed instruction for those students.  She also developed instruction for public history students at Texas Lutheran University where she’d use records of city and county clerks.

One major challenge in teaching with archival records, she said, is that the public doesn’t always know “who does what” in government. So her class would begin with a civics lesson: what does the city do?  What does the county do?  What records does each of them have?

In her Public History class, she gave students an assignment: find the deed to the house you grew up in.  The students loved doing the research and were amazed to find this information in public records.

Irene Wainwright (City Archives, New Orleans Public Library)

New Orleans city seal

New Orleans city seal

The earliest municipal records of the City of New Orleans date from 1769 — and as early as 1770, the records make reference to a city archives. Irene Wainwright listed a dizzying array of research uses for the archives that she’s seen in her long tenure as an archivist. Dizzying as in, my hand wouldn’t move fast enough to record everything she said — but she was generous enough to email her notes to me! I was struck by the sheer breadth of researchers she mentions, so I’m using her notes to share almost all of them.

Users and uses of the New Orleans City Archives have included:

Genealogists

Family history researchers typically visit the library to determine when a family member died, and, after consulting published information like the obituary index and newspaper collection, would use things like death certificates, burial records, Coroner’s records, or even homicide records from the New Orleans Police Department.

Local Citizens

Citizens come to the library with routine questions like “When was my house built?” “Why did I get this parking ticket?” “How much property tax did I pay between 1957 and 1972?” and “What was the name of that playground in the neighborhood that I grew up in during the 1940s?”

But sometimes, Wainwright said, “the question rises above the routine, and its answer holds greater importance for the individual citizen.” For example:

  • People come to the archives after being denied employment as private security guards because of previous arrests, and the archives has had some success in helping find the original record showing that the offense was a misdemeanor or that the charges were dropped by the District Attorney.
  • After Hurricane Katrina, the archives helped property owners in the Lower Ninth Ward use real estate tax assessments to find proof that they actually did own the ground on which their houses once stood.
  • And one of their favorites: a woman wanted to have something to remember her deceased father by–the archives helped her locate and copy his videotaped appearance at a City Council meeting some time before he passed. She was very happy and appreciative for their help.

Members of Various Professions

  • A local law firm specializing in public utility cases has regularly sent representatives to study records of the City Council in its capacity as regulator of Entergy New Orleans’ natural gas and electricity operations in the city.
  • Architects, engineers, and contractors are heavy users of the blueprints transferred to the archives by the Department of Safety & Permits.
  • A television producer with the local PBS affiliate has on several occasions used old film footage from the Mayor’s office in her series of nostalgic programs on the city during the 1950s and 1960s.
  • Architects and architecture historians used plans and photographs in efforts to save several mid-century modern schools damaged by Katrina.

City Employees and Officials

The archives’ primary responsibility, said Wainwright, is serving City Hall. City employees and officials regularly consult the archives for records that have been turned over to the City Archives for permanent retention.

  • The Clerk of Council asks for copies of ordinances from prior to 1954, when the current series of city laws began.
  • City planners have had the archives pull older zoning dockets when requests are made to make changes to the zoning for individual properties.
  • Cold case detectives from the New Orleans Police Department have used microfilmed arrest records and offense reports in their efforts to bring resolution to long-unsolved homicides — and attorneys working with the Innocence Project have used such materials to exonerate inmates in Parish Prison or at Angola.

Representatives of Other Governmental Agencies

  • Officials from local courts have consulted prior-year municipal budgets to determine what share of their annual funding has historically come from the city treasury.
  • Investigators with the United States House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations copied NOPD records relating to Lee Harvey Oswald, David Ferrie, and others.
  • FEMA employees and contractors used a wide variety of municipal records, including aerial photographs from the City Planning Commission, blueprints, published city reports, and planning documents in preparing studies and evaluating claims in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
  • Researchers from the Environmental Protection Agency and attorneys from the Justice Department studied records dealing with the disposal of waste following Hurricane Betsy in 1965-1966 in connection with a Superfund Site lawsuit that has still not been completely settled.  (“In fact,” said Wainwright, “I think they may have copied every single sheet of paper in the City Archives that included the word ‘garbage.'”)

Academics

“We’re always happy to have academics—graduate students, professors, authors—come through our doors. We’re even happier when they stay for a while and happier still when they come back for more!”

  • Paul Lachance from the University of Ottawa made use of early census records and the records of indentures made before the Mayor in his writings on demographics and society in colonial and early antebellum Louisiana.
  • Richard Campanella, Tulane University geographer, used wharfinger records for background information in his Lincoln in New Orleans: the 1828-1832 flatboat voyages and their place in history.
  • J. Mark Souther, Cleveland State University, used letters of New Orleans mayors and other elected officials in New Orleans on Parade: Tourism and the Transformation of the Crescent City.
  • Emily Landau, University of Maryland at College Park, used a variety of police records along with records of the mayor and city council in her Spectacular wickedness: sex, race, and memory in Storyville, New Orleans.
  • Jean-Pierre LeGlaunec of the Université de Sherbrook Ottawa is using police jail and other police records to study slave resistance in antebellum New Orleans.

I have never heard a more comprehensive list of uses for government records than Wainwright’s (and I haven’t even listed them all!)

Conclusion

Wainwright said that the City Archives considers itself “the archives of the people.”  Whereas manuscript repositories have the capacity to collect only the records of a chosen few, city records are the records of everybody — everybody touches city government in some way.

Would the creators of these records have known the historical significance that the records would go on to have? Maybe, but probably not — the creators were probably just doing their jobs and not thinking about the historian, 8th grader, documentary filmmaker, federal investigator, or job-seeker that would be touching the record one day.  And they certainly wouldn’t be thinking about the archivist who’s responsible for identifying the value of that record, protecting it from hazards, and helping researchers find it years later!

So, while the records of government may seem boring or unimportant at the time of their creation, I think this session did a great job of showing the rich stories that they tell and how they truly help people in meaningful ways.

2 thoughts on “The Archives of the People: Using Local Government Records

  1. wow…that’s the first and only word I can think of after reading this. This was a wonderful post. Thank you so much for sharing this.

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