Historical Society and Others Race to Preserve County Documents
By Rick Hiduk
Paper covers rock, scissors cut paper, and rock breaks scissors. But maintaining Bradford County’s history via documents stored in the prothonotary and deeds office is not child’s play. A number of measures have been taken on recently to preserve every document that has ever been filed at the courthouse and to make the filing of future documents more efficient.
On Oct. 6, Bradford County prothonotary Sally Vaughn announced at the county commissioners’ meeting that numerous records related to Bradford County’s pre-1830 history were dampened during recent flooding. The documents, which were stored in 22 boxes and moved to the basement of Children and Youth Services (CYS) on Main Street in Towanda about a year ago, were earmarked for the Bradford County Historical Society (BCHS) but were not transported there as planned prior to runoff from excessive rains that seeped into the CYS building in September.
The boxes contain some of the oldest records in the county and had been moved from the courthouse because their proximity to the heating system in the courthouse had been questioned, and the older documents were deemed more historically significant than information that is used often enough to justify its storage in limited space available at the courthouse.
“There was a concern that, if there was ever a fire at the courthouse, we’d never be able to save them,” said Vaughn, who told commissioners that she requested three times that county maintenance staff move the boxes. Ironically, moisture and the natural degradation of paper over time now pose more of a threat to the historic documents than fire might have.
According to BCHS museum manager and curator Matt Carl, “Only the boxes that were in contact with the floor were affected,” which represents about 20 percent of what was stored there. “The boxes that were used by the county for storage are capable of resisting water for a period of time if the contact is slow and gradual,” Carl explained. “Fortunately, that was the case.” It also helped, he noted, that the paperwork was tightly packed.
Carl expects that the files can be dried out with the use of a dehumidifier and packed into new boxes so that they can become part of the permanent BCHS research library. Among the treasures are old criminal court filings and road dockets that pertain to the construction of some of the county’s earliest bridges and thoroughfares.
Though sometimes hard to read because of the antiquated style of cursive writing and some legal jargon that is no longer common, the documents remain a window to a world of bureaucracy that, in many ways, was not so different than it is today. For instance, a sample document pulled from the boxes that are now in safekeeping at BCHS shows that officials representing the village of Milan petitioned Ulster Township for a new bridge because its citizens did not feel that they should be responsible for its cost.
Vaughn has also been working with Brown’s River Marotti Co. Archival Preserving and Imaging to digitally reproduce county records from the early 1800s to the early 1900s that have been significantly compromised due to heavy use by title searchers employed by gas companies. The cost of the endeavor will be covered by a $32,000 grant issued to the county to automate more records.
Many of the deeds and court notes had been previously recorded to film, but the reels are not considered user-friendly and are stored in large metal chests that take up ample space in an office that seems to be more in demand everyday. There are approximately 1,000 images per reel and 150 reels stored in 11 drawers. Records currently on film cover the late 1800s to late 1900s.
“You kind of have to go backwards and figure out what people are using the most,” Vaughn said of the process of selecting what was sent to the Marotti Company, which will produce both film and digital versions of the records. One set of documents on both paper and film will always be kept in vaults at the courthouse, Vaughn explained, but the digital version will be accessible to the public via existing computers and, hopefully, at least two more.
“It will free up a lot of space in the office at no expense to the taxpayers,” said Vaughn, who admitted that, while nothing beats holding the original piece of paper when it comes to getting the feel of a historic document, the county could no longer risk further damage to the important records by allowing the large ledgers to be pored through by hand.
“We’re just in a position where we can’t wait anymore,” she said of the reproduction efforts.
On Oct. 6, the Bradford County Commissioners approved a contract with Paperless Solutions for case management software consulting, design, development and support for the prothonotary office. When asked if this would mean that paper records would no longer be maintained by the county, Vaughn responded that such was not yet the case.
“At some point, we will go electronically, but the president judge has to approve that,” she stated, noting that the title of the contracted company was a bit of a misnomer. “We are only purchasing what we need to replace a 20-year-old system with a state-of-the-art system. We are one of the last counties in the state to get it, and we are very excited about it.”