Geof Huth 2017-03-09 12:31:37
I imagined this project would be simple: Box approximately 10,000 cubic feet of records in a few months with a staff of six and move on to the next big records project. What actually happened was that my work life was transformed and my deep drive to understand the secret workings of records intensified. I’d uncovered an open yet hidden world of records, a key to the accumulated meaning of records, and a map to understanding how context has deeper and richer significance in the world of records than I had understood before. When this project began, I had just started as the chief records officer of the New York State Unified Court System. As the most senior records person in a branch of New York State government, I assumed responsibility for the overall direction of archives and records management for approximately 2,500 courts and offices and oversaw records from the 1670s to the present. My first course of business was to assess the functioning of the Office of Records Management and make process improvements. My second was to work with our Division of Technology, courts, and others to move the court system into a fully digital system of recordkeeping. With significantly more than a million cubic feet of paper records—archival, inactive, and active—I quickly learned that the court system’s extensive improvements in the creation, acceptance, and management of electronic records had to increase even more. Almost immediately, I learned what has become my motto: Paper will kill the court system. An Actual “Dusty Archives” During my first month on the job in June 2015, I toured the Surrogate’s Court building, which sits just north of City Hall Park at the southern tip of New York City. This building opened in 1907 as the Hall of Records, and its many floors had been outfitted with the highest quality storage devices of the day: secure steel Woodruff file cases. Over the intervening century, these had disappeared from most of the floors, but the uppermost floors of the building still held millions of folded documents in the small removable drawers of these Woodruff file cases. The space I found was literally covered in dust, totally lacking in professional environmental controls, cramped, sometimes disordered, without adequate fire protection, and unburdened by security controls. Most of the great profusion of records stored there showed the effects of existing under these poor conditions for a century. Most paper documents were brittle, some of which had shattered into pieces. Over the years, some individual volumes had broken into two or more dispersed pieces. Mid-century custodians had merged records of multiple courts into large artificial series, imposed complex alphachrononumerical systems of arrangement, and created more than a million cards indexing case files by plaintiff and defendant. Unrelated records were sometimes accumulated in unmarked boxes. I found a large parchment roll lying on the floor. The tiny staff for this vast archives had to focus most of its work on retrieving records from the last thirty years, and they had little additional time to address purely archival issues. Even so, over the years, the staff had used grants to conduct a large-scale appraisal of the records, conserve some of the most important of these, and transcribe the millions of index cards into digital indexes. Given that no one knew all of the series in the collection, I proposed we conduct a largescale records inventory. Since the records were suffering from the environmental conditions in the building and even from research use under imperfect situations, I recommended that we donate the records of statewide courts to the New York State Archives, and the records of those courts with jurisdiction limited to Manhattan to the New York City Municipal Archives. The first phase of the project was the inventory of records destined for the State Archives, and that took as long as I’d estimated it would take to finish the entire inventory. What I had not taken into account was that the usual rules of thumb for records inventory projects didn’t apply. The cramped spaces we worked in, the need to remove records from four Woodruff files just to fill a single box, the need to HEPA-vacuum these dirty files as we boxed them, the sometimes inscrutable identification of the records (no one yet knows what the series title “BM” stands for), the huge sizes of some of the volumes and parchments, and the rampant disorder of some of the records—all of these slowed the process significantly. A Deeper Understanding of Archives Yet we found miracles in these records. Our intense work on a complex set of interrelated records from at least a dozen different courts allowed us to perceive the historical operations of the early courts. The disorder of the records forced us to look more deeply at the records than we would have during a usual inventory. The need to physically bring individual series and even single documents back into a state of wholeness allowed us a deeper view into the past. We learned so much about the records that I began to document everything we learned for future custodians. As part of the 550-page inventory document we sent to the State Archives (accompanied by a database of the data on each series), we identified which record books and documents we reassembled. I conceived of this work as informational conservation: repairing the intellectual cohesion of the record and documenting our work to ensure our changes would be easily reversible if our decisions were later found to be incorrect. Because we were faced with layers of centuries of context, we were also careful to document the various contexts we found, so that future archivists would understand the records almost as well as we had come to. As part of the inventory, I categorized the dozen types of context we had documented, including historical, functional, structural, procedural, metadata, and paradata context—and the contexts of multiplicities and of records dispersal. Making Headlines Near the end of the project, The New York Times interviewed members of the court system and the State Archives and wrote an illuminating and extra-illustrated article under the title, “Centuries of New York History Prepare for a Move.” The story focused on the state and age of the records and on interesting documents dealing with Hamilton and Burr, but it also gave some sense of the overwhelming depth of social information in these records of civil court cases. This single story hit the news world in a dramatic fashion. The Times put the story at the top of its homepage, along with a scrolling set of images of the records, giving this article the greatest possible prominence. Because of that piece, we gave two interviews to local New York City television stations. The next week, we gave an interview to the major Brazilian television broadcaster. A friend who works in my neighborhood liquor store even told me the story was all over his social media for three days. This part of the story ended with the transfer of records to the State Archives, whose staff made visits to our facility and carefully planned how to move hundreds of twenty-pound bound volumes, 38-inch portfolios bulging with parchments (sometimes 18 feet in length), and simple cubic foot boxes of records—about 1500 cubic feet of records total. After three weeks of packing and transporting, three trips from New York City to Albany, and five truckloads, the records made it to their final resting space in the Archives’ state-of-the-art facility, and my job as an anti-archivist, as an archivist who writes descriptions for other archivists rather than users, as an archivist who gives away instead of maintains records—came to a, temporary, end. We are now working on the second and much larger phase of the project, which will encompass about 9,000 cubic feet of records destined for the Municipal Archives.
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