Interview with an Archivist

As part of our ongoing celebration of Archives Month, we reached out to the Travis County Archives for a chat with Christy Costlow, CA about topics inspired by questions we’ve received over the years from local governments dealing with ongoing digital preservation efforts.

TSLAC: Christy, tell us about your ongoing digitization project that was a result of the county clerk’s role in ensuring long-term preservation of county records. How important is buy-in from county officials when it comes to getting a successful digitization project going?

Travis County seal

Christy: The Travis County Archives has collaborated with the Travis County Clerk on a large-scale digitization project since 2015. The goals of the project are to make historical bound volumes more accessible in a digital format and to ensure their long-term preservation.

Books are selected based on the following criteria: high research value, frequent access rate, and materials in poor condition. Selected materials have included deed records and indexes, probate records, marriage records, survey records, civil and criminal county court records, naturalization records, commissioners court minutes, and more. Scanning is completed in-house in the Archives by digitization technicians, and the high-resolution images are hosted online by the Portal to Texas History.

It quickly became evident how beneficial this project was. Some of the books are in quite poor condition, with fragile pages and fading ink. Digitization has reduced handling on the books and ensures that the information contained within is preserved. The project has also made it possible for the Travis County Clerk’s office to easily share their extensive collections. For the first time, researchers have access to images of primary source materials that previously were only available only to those who could visit county offices in person. The digitized documents can now be viewed and downloaded at any time and at no cost by anyone with an internet connection.

More than 880 books have been digitized so far, dating from 1840 to the 1930s. The project continues to progress forward to the decades, and we look forward to making more records available over the coming years.

Dana DeBeauvoir, the Travis County Clerk, has been an excellent partner in this endeavor, and she is a great example of how important county officials are in projects such as these. Like many archives, the Travis County Archives is a very small program with limited staff and funding. The county clerk’s office provided the necessary resources for a successful project, including funding for temporary workers who complete the digitization work. Without the assistance of the county clerk and her staff, this project would not have been possible.

TSLAC: We read on the Travis County Archives website that numerous boxes of case files dating back to 1840 were found in a warehouse, and that date correlates with the timeline of the establishment of the county. Do you think there is possibly more to be found in storage somewhere, or did that discovery make the collection of case file nearly complete?

Christy: I suspect that most undiscovered county records still in existence have been rediscovered by now, but there are gaps in our records here and there, and I am always hopeful that missing materials will turn up in an unexpected place. These records found in a warehouse were civil case papers from the earliest sessions of the Travis County District Court, dating from the 1840s. Most deal with land disputes and are a great resource for research about early land ownership in the county. Nearly all early district court case papers were microfilmed and disposed of many decades ago; these case papers somehow escaped that fate and are now some of the only ones we have in original form.

TSLAC: Now that e-filing is mandatory for attorneys filing cases in district and county courts, and highly encouraged for non-attorney filers as well, how might this affect traditional archival methods and workflows going forward as more records are born-digital rather than needing to be digitized?

Christy: The increased amount of born-digital records requires archivists to understand and be able to work with the rapid changes in technology and standards. Traditional archival methods can provide guidance, but digital preservation requires additional skill sets. Regarding the records of courts, it may be necessary for the archivist to work with the clerks earlier in the process instead of waiting until the active life cycle of the records has ended, to ensure that the digital records can be property preserved.

TSLAC: Facing a room full of old, brittle record books, one rural county clerk reached out to us this summer to seek guidance on defining the scope of her digitization project and how to prioritize what types of permanent records she should focus on first. Her main dilemma was not having anyone in her office who had been around long enough to help identify which records were essential and needed to be focused on more than others. Do you have any suggestions for other clerks who lack the budget and staff of a larger county archive?

schedule clipart

Christy: When we select records for digitization, we choose records with historical value, high access rates (either established or potential), and condition. TSLAC retention schedules are a great source of information for identifying historical value. Access rates can be tricky to establish if there has been no past usage. However, clerk office staff can be a great source of information. They know what gets used and how often, and what types of information patrons are looking for, whether it be deeds, vital statistics records, probate, etc. Genealogists are another great resource. Our digitization project was inspired in part by genealogists who had communicated with us the difficulty in accessing certain records to complete their research.

TSLAC: Every archivist I have known has a favorite document or artifact in their collection. What is your favorite piece of Travis County history?

Christy: Several years back we uncovered some records relating to the “Servant Girl Killer,” who committed a series of murders in Austin in 1884 and 1885. While many have theories as to the identity of the killer, the case is technically unsolved. I had always hoped to come across some primary source materials relating to the murders, but never really expected to. It was a surprise to find some rolled up in the bottom of a box (and on my birthday, no less!): transcripts of the trials of two suspects, an inquest, and an autopsy. The inquest is particularly interesting, as it includes a diagram of one of the yards where a victim was found, and interviews with neighbors, one of whom who claimed to see the killer in a vision.

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