07 June 2004

roane county courthouse attic - seen any good archival imperatives lately?

here's a recent broadcast item from wate tv, knoxville's channel 6. seems that roane may be destined to lose more of its records because of storage woes:

Reporter Tearsa Smith walks down one of the many aisles of Roane County records
[courtesy of wate, tv channel 6, knoxville, tn]

Roane County Courthouse records may be in jeopardy

June 1, 2004

By Tearsa Smith
6 News Reporter

ROANE COUNTY (WATE) -- The top floor of the Roane County Courthouse is weighed down with public records dating back to the 1800's. But the load may be too much for the storage rooms to bear.

If you want to find out who didn't pay their Roane County property taxes in 1876, the records are still in the courthouse, along with hundreds of thousands more.

Roane County archivist Robert Bailey said the warm, dusty attic contains countless information on old murder cases, arrest reports and even school vendor files. The boxes span more than 200 years.

"Our records are actually in great shape," Bailey said.

A records management assessor warned the county that the load could be too much for the 30-year-old attic to bear. "It's not an immediate concern," Bailey said. "It's just something that we've got to look at long term. We've got to see how it's best to manage the attic and the area."

It would seem logical to just put everything on computers. But Bailey explained why that's not a good option at this point. "It only takes one problem to loose
[sic] what could be months of work. The other problem is, it takes a lot of man power to scan records. It also takes a lot of time, which we don't have."

The huge job is being handled by the two-person Preservation of Records Department. "The records that we're destroying are temporary value records," Bailey said. "They no longer have any historical or genealogical value. They also no longer have any legal value."

The county is working to bring an engineer in to help determine the exact weight limit of the attic. Until then, they'll continue assessing what stays and what can be discarded.

The Preservation of Records Department hopes to hire several workers from the Tennessee Career Center to help go through the records.

A large portion of records have been taken to the old courthouse for storage.
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Original article and context at

in september 2003, robert bailey, the archivist mentioned in the article, and darleen trent, records preservationist and curator of the old courthouse museum , told me a horror story about a previous cleaning out of county records. i'm unsure of current numbers, but in 1999, the roane county archives, owned and administered by the roane county heritage commission, held about 750,000 individual documents [source: darleen trent message at rootsweb]. many, many of these documents had been rescued by commission staff and volunteers after a frantic phone call from someone who'd seen county records being heaped in piles at the city dump. it seems that at least one county administrator thought the space they were taking up in the present county courthouse - the "new" one - could be put to better use. without warning, then, thousands of records had been unceremoniously hauled off by the truckload as garbage. we can't know how many documents were lost forever in this shortsighted cleanup operation, but we do know that the castoffs form a solid backbone for the current county archives.

archival storage is a growing problem in more ways than one. as a nation of consumers who live in a time when even the methods of documentation and information exchange are rapidly evolving, we concomitantly generate a massive amount of "documents" and waste that might nevertheless interest some future family historian. how do we preserve it all? or do we? and the ironic larger question is, of course, where can we keep it once it's preserved?

our informational bits and bytes need appraising. but exactly how does the worth or value get assessed? on what is it based? who gets to do the assessing?

well, obviously robert and the other person in the two-person "records preservation department" of roane county, tennessee, get to do some assessing. and despite robert's assurance that any documents to be disappeared have lost any and all value - the kind of assurance that makes fire bells go off in my chest - i trust them. well, him. i trust him. right now, i don't know who the other person is. maybe i'd trust him or her, too. i don't know. i'm real shaky about those people they're wanting to bring in from the tennessee career center, too.

okay. so here's what i'm really wanting to know: does there exist some overarching vision or mission we can guide ourselves by - some archival imperative?

are we really destined, do you think, to rely only on fee-based archives like or similar corporations who early on recognized how much money could be made by bulking up on the flotsam and jetsam of ordinary life? or, even more frightening, on the recent trend toward indexing the records of the past with apparently little or no thought about where the originals have gotten themselves to? so exactly what is the value of keeping old store ledgers or shipping lists? and what kind of value are we talking about? intrinsic value? exchange value? what is the real question these days? would we, could we, as we'd all like to think, certainly have enough sense to recognize and hang on to the really important things even though any function they might have beyond the casually informational is no longer readily apparent?

as a descendant of many unlettered working class people, these questions sometimes loom large in my own genealogical meanderings. i'm one of those people whose database is littered with "mentions." you may recognize what i mean - all those notes that don't have a category in your software's "life events" fields. those about spotting an ancestor's name in a store ledger or among the attendees at an estate auction, their appearance in a church minutes report or having been named as a character witness in a neighbor's bastardy suit. like that. there are entire lines i know i'm just wasting my time on if i'm going through land records. many of my ancestors were too poor to ever own homes much less the land you'd put them on. and they couldn't read or write and so there's no civil war missive from vicksburg tucked away as a family heirloom i can pore over. even when they were formally documented, because they couldn't correct misspellings of their names on census or tax records, they still have to be puzzled out and hopefully established to be who they are. so, hey, i'm willing to do my share. if you've got something with a name that might belong to someone in my ancestral past, send it along. i'll be happy to do the inventorying, the appraising, and the storage.


wreckage or discarded material e.g. garbage, found floating on the surface of the sea or washed up on the beach.


the part of a ship's equipment or cargo that is thrown overboard to lighten the load in a storm

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smart match

how smart is this? b 1866 d 2002. sure.

one of the genealogy programs i use to supplement my main database, stored in legacy deluxe 5, is family tree legends.

i prefer using legacy deluxe as my main program for a number of reasons. i'll tell you why sometime. and no, i'm not an affiliate. i don't get one lick of reveue from them. maybe someday. it's easy to tout something you use and adore. while i'm not an affiliate, though, you might want to go download yourself a totally free, absolutely free, hotdang free copy of the standard version of their software. from me it's high praise when i tell you i have never had a problem with the legacy product or with the people who run their show.

but i like family tree legends, too. a lot.

having said that...

for some reason, when i'm using it, i seldom feel as if i'm doing real research. one reason is the icons. have you seen them? they remind me soooo much of fisher price little people.