Ontario County Department of Records, Archives and Information Management Services

Final Grant Report, Archival Records, Nineteenth Century Court Records, 07/01/2000 to 06/30/2001

 

I. Intended Results:

1. Make nineteenth century civil and criminal court records available to researchers.

2. Analyze court records to separate sensitive materials, such as coroners' records, from public records.

3. Clean court records and perform minor repairs.

4. Place court records into acid-free folders and boxes

5. Place boxes into environmentally controlled storage

6. Create a database to make information available to researchers locally and on the Internet.

II. Project Activities and Accomplishments

Nineteenth century court records were virtually inaccessible to research, and numerous researchers had to be turned away or they had to suffer through frustrating hours and days of search for specific information. In one case, the County Attorney's Office had to devote six months to an important issue because the nineteenth century court records were not searchable. The records had been thrown into boxes and brought over to the Records and Archives Center when the Court House was being renovated.

To provide accessibility to these records, the Department of RAIMS appointed a part-time, temporary clerk with the grant funds. He had the responsibility of unwrapping the court records (Most were rolled or folded and held together with paper wrappers). The next step was to find all pertinent case documents, often stored in various boxes, and place them into file folders or file pocket folders. In all cases, the documents had to be carefully cleaned with a brush to remove loose dirt and dust to reduce further damage. After foldering the documents, the clerk entered the pertinent information into a computer database. File folders were then labeled with computer database information and placed into acid-free boxes. The Assistant RMO supervised the day-to-day aspects of the project and double-checked for errors.. All boxes were then relocated in the environmentally controlled archives room.

The project was successful in permitting the following:

1. Removal of nineteenth century court records from an environmentally unsafe location

2. Placing court records into acid-free folders and boxes

3. Creating a database that permits access by researchers and appropriate county officials

4. Preserving an important part of Ontario County's heritage

The project ran into some unforeseen challenges:

1. Because the records had been stored in the Court House basement, a number of files had actually congealed into one mass. Present technology is inadequate or too costly to separate these records. There is serious doubt that they will ever be separated from each other

2. The original wet basement conditions had created a mold problem. The RMO ordered the staff not to endanger their health, and the ARMO carefully wrapped the moldy files and separated them from all other documents. It is likely that the RMO will request permission from the State Archives to destroy these records.

3. To the chagrin of the RMO, the college student who had been hired as part-time clerk was only semi-literate. This factor caused additional work for the ARMO who had to correct spelling and other mistakes.

Despite these challenges, the project was a boon to RAIMS and its many researchers. The day-to-day duties of the staff simply did not permit us to tackle a project of this magnitude without additional help.

The first, uncorrected version of the database is already available on the RAIMS website and has resulted in numerous research requests.

III. State Archives Aid

The ROA and other Archives staff were always readily available for advice when needed. The RAO is at the Ontario County facilities at least once a month.

IV. Advisory Committee Participation

Since this was a very specific project, only those members of the Advisory Committee with direct interest were involved in the project, although the entire government operations section was kept informed. Members of the Advisory Committee involved were the County Attorney, County Clerk, County Administrator and Finance Officer.

V. County Support

Ontario County continued to support records management with a budget of $333,000. Specifically for this project, services of the RMO, ARMO and support staff were utilized.

VI. Project Relation to other Projects and Management Plan

It is the plan of Ontario County to make all public archival records available and accessible for both county business and for private research. The Board of Supervisors is fully aware of the importance of archival records and continues to support projects that permit full access. In past grant projects, archival records of historical importance have been made available to the public while preserving the original from further damage. This usually involved microfilming, placing originals into acid-free folders and boxes, and storing them in the environmentally controlled archives room. Specific examples funded through the grant program are Surrogate Court records and deeds to real property. Numerous record series have been made available to the public through posting indexes on the website http://raims.com/.

VII. Continued Support

Ontario County will continue to fund records management to the best of its ability. In all cases, the County has picked up the cost of continuing projects initiated through a grant program. The staff at RAIMS will fine-tune the database begun with this grant project and add additional court records, especially those of the early twentieth century.

VIII. Contribution to Records Management of the Project

The grant project has made available a treasure trove of nineteenth century court records with tremendous significance to researchers. The legal documents include materials for research in social, economic, legal and political development of not only Ontario County, but all of western New York. The grant project was a giant step forward in making county records available for official and private research.

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