Tuesday, March 4, 2008

AIR: Where Records Goest, There Goest I

Back when I was but a wee records manager (ok, ok, no one will ever believe that I was a "wee" anything), I had the very distinct privilege of one of the best forms of records management training on the job on the planet -- surveys of local government records.

Back then (and probably still today), Illinois had more units of local government than the next two states combined. Cook County (the County which is dominated by Chicago) has over 120 municipalities, besides Chicago! Well, back then, Cook County was my turf. I was the sole field Representative for the Local Records Commission of Cook County, via the Illinois State Archives. I never wanted for work. I churned monthly inventory statistics like there was no tomorrow. Retention schedules (all by hand and typewriter) flew out of my office. and I got to see how the political sausage is made. I can still drive by a village hall somewhere in the suburbs and picture where the records were and how bad they were.

Two episodes still bring back nightmares. It was summer. And it was hot and humid. The Lake would not be providing any natural air conditioning on that day. I was dressed in my normal "official" garb: Dockers-like pants, dress shirt, and tie. Photo ID hanging from the pocket. Driving the State-owned Chevette. I was nearing the end of a typical suburban inventory a couple suburbs from my home. It was nice to be able to stay off the expressways for a change and get to "work" in 15 minutes or so. The task was the Fire Department. Those were typically pretty simple: incident reports, a few investigation reports, ambulance run records, some training records and maybe a pile of inspection reports. There'd be some odds and ends here and there, but it was usually a couple hours of effort at most.

I arrived promptly at 9am and as I extracted myself from the Chevette, I knew it was going to be one of those blistering hot days. I was glad to have a nice inside job. Poke around some file cabinets in the office, maybe move a couple boxes. I introduced myself to the chief and he turned me over to his clerk. I poked around and scribbled for an hour or so and pretty much had exhausted the files in the office. I asked if they had any other records. The clerk said that every now and then she had one of the firemen go get her a box from "somewhere", she wasn't sure, so she pages one of the guys. In comes a fireman. She tells him that I want to see the old records. He says, "Are you sure?" I tell him, with some bravado, that I'd seen a lot in my work and records didn't scare me. "How about ladders?"

Ladders. Whadya mean ladders? He opens the door to the apparatus floor and beckons. Well, right next to the shiny chrome and red trucks is a roughly 15 foot ladder bolted to the wall -- straight up to an opening in the ceiling. As I stood there, I swear that ladder got longer. A thumb pointed vertically. "There's your old records." Now I will note that that apparatus floor was quite a bit toastier than the office had been. The sun was heading for its Noon position. And I was about to climb up a ladder into an attic. "I don't suppose you have a staircase to get up there?"

The fireman told me that he'd go up first and turn on the light and make sure I didn't put my feet through the ceiling. Up he went. So I climbed. I may have stuck the clipboard into the back of my pants so I had both hands on the ladder. I don't remember. The temperature climbed with me. Before long, I was head and shoulders into the attic.

This was an older building and it had a style of roof known as a barrel-vaulted roof. This makes for a fairly wide span, but very little headroom in the attic. In this case, perhaps five feet at the high point. The safe places to walk were highlighted and I pulled myself out into the attic. It must have been 120 degrees in there. I looked around and saw a small sea of boxes, some old equipment, and not much else. Sweat was pouring off of me both from the climb and the temperature. My tour guide pointed out the stuff that he knew to be records and told me to yell for him if I needed anything. He then disappeared down the ladder.

I suspect that I spent about five minutes looking at the labels on the boxes and trying to find the oldest dates for each record series. I hastily counted boxes and decided that there probably was nothing of any real significance up there and that I had done my due diligence. I carefully found my way back down the ladder and on to an apparatus floor that seemed wonderfully spring-like. I found a water cooler and downed half a gallon (it seemed) of water. My shirt was soaked through and I was a mess.

Now normally at that point in my visit, I would wrap up with a discussion of next steps, walk through the process to review and approve the retention schedule, and make sure they knew how to request destruction of records. I pretty much tossed the Local Records Handbook at them and said that I would be in touch. The air conditioning in that Chevette never felt so good!

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