Wednesday, March 5, 2008

AIR: Records Surveys Should Not Require Use of a Large Stick

At some point in my two year adventure with the Local Records Unit of the Illinois State Archives, I found myself in a small, impoverished suburb south of Chicago. The Village Hall was built in the 1920's and that was its high point. By the time I got there, the town barely had money to pay its employees. But they wanted to get rid of some records, so they needed a survey and retention schedule.

This was a pretty small town, so the inventory of current records went pretty quickly. The Clerk's vault had most of the records and all of the Minute books for the village. That was kind of interesting because it had never been upgraded from what was installed back in 1920 or so. When I had finished all of the offices, I asked if there were any other records. The clerk made a face and said, "I'll be right back." She came back with a key and a very big stick (think really thick broom stick). She took me around the corner and unlocked a door. Beyond the door was a staircase into the basement. She ceremoniously handed me the stick and said, "You might want to give those boxes a whack before you open them." Um yeah. "And we get some water down there once in a while, so I hope you're not allergic to mold." Okaaaaaaay....

So down I go. It was pretty clear pretty quickly that "some water" was perhaps several feet. I was hoping that the rats weren't good swimmers. When I reached the bottom of the stairs, I could see the boxes. It was clear from ten feet away that these boxes had seen "some water". I approached the first pile and gripped the stick. If the stick had been a samurai sword I would have cleaved the box in two. I held my breath waiting for scurrying noises. It was quiet. So I gingerly opened the lid.

Well, there was a reason that the rats had left town. They were disgusted by the potential living quarters in those boxes. You see, "some water" was probably any number of soaking floods of god knows what sort of polluted water. A box of invoices was now a box of moldy, mildewy pulped paper.

This would be an "eyeball inventory". I took note of the labels on boxes that I could read, looked for old dates, and guessed at some volumes. I flagged all that stuff as "effectively destroyed". I was back upstairs inside of ten minutes.

The Clerk was clearly surprised to see me. I handed her the stick and told her that it had not been used in anger and that the boxes were devoid of residents -- and effectively devoid of records as well. I briefed her on the next steps and took my leave, thankful that it would not be my job to shred those records.

I wonder if anyone ever did that job.

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