MUNICIPAL RECORDS: Maintenance and preservation are important

(from Maine Townsman, March 1999)
by Jim Henderson, Maine State Archivist

Note: Disregard the statement that towns of more than 1,300 population must provide fireproof safes or vaults for their records: the requirement applies to all municipalities. 8/00

Municipal records: "Yeah, we’ve got that. Now let’s see . . . ." Does this describe the condition of your municipality's recordkeeping. If it does, you are not alone. Consider the following scary facts regarding the condition of municipal records in Maine.

• Municipal records are being destroyed in floods and fires. April, 1994 – Fort Fairfield Town Office lost records to flooding; June, 1995 – Canaan Town Office burned to the ground with its records; March, 1998 – Industry Town Office roof collapsed with substantial damage to records; January, 1999 – records lost as Liberty’s 170 year old Community Hall burned to the ground. (The State Archives microfilmed many of Liberty’s town records in 1987, thus limiting the loss).

• Since statehood, more than 175 Maine municipalities have lost records due to fires, floods and other disasters.

• Most municipalities have no fire suppression systems, no year-round temperature controls and no humidity controls.

• Though required by law for over 100 years, many towns do not keep critical records in a fireproof vault.

• In 1998 a dealer offered the Town of Phippsburg the opportunity to purchase their own 150 year-old town records. After a protracted legal effort they were finally returned to the town. (Sale of government records is unlawful).

• Most municipalities have no list of their historical records, more than one quarter of which are stored in unsuitable locations (attics, cellars).

• Municipalities have limited resources to carry on the battle against technical obsolescence as historical records come in a widening variety of formats on computers.

The records of Maine towns and cities provide some of the earliest and most comprehensive information about the political and social history of the state. Municipal officials should be proud of their efforts to protect a major segment of Maine’s historical record, often under difficult physical, staffing and financial constraints. The public, and local officials themselves, rely on these records daily for current business and historical research.

This article reflects on lessons that Maine State Archives has learned from surveys and site visits of municipal offices and historical records repositories, from recent experiences with town records, and from issues raised by computer applications.

The article provides answers to the following questions: What are "official" records? Why are they important? Who is responsible? What care do they receive and how can it be improved? Any help out there?

The Heritage

Local government records are among the oldest to be found in Maine and in the nation, dating from the 17th Century in York, Cumberland and Lincoln counties. Town clerks historically have been, by law, recorders of the most basic vital information. Until the creation of a state vital statistics registry in 1892, they were sole legal keepers of birth, marriage and death records. Other town records show the earliest evidence of everyday concerns as manifested in minutes of town meetings, and in the transactions of other municipal officers, such as tax assessors, overseers of the poor, and selectmen.

What are Official Municipal Records?

They are the records created or received during the daily business of plantations, towns, and cities. They come in many different forms, sizes, and ages. Records may be in computer, video or audio format on tapes, disks, or CD’s. They may be maps on microfilm, images on photographs, or manuscripts in bound volumes.

Municipal records are public property requiring proper organization and retention or destruction according to federal and State regulations. Archival records must be protected, preserved, and available for use by government departments and the public.

Why are They Important?

Municipal records are important because they:

• protect the people’s rights and interests;

• ensure that government is accountable and functions according to law;

• provide valuable evidence protecting government and individuals in litigation;

• provide the evidence that protects employees’ rights and benefits;

• document the history and legacy of communities.

Most people use local government records for very personal and very practical matters. Citizens need birth certificates to help document age for retirement, to acquire a passport, and to enroll children in school. Homeowners refer to tax records to see if their assessments are fair when compared to others. Genealogists use birth, death, and marriage records to trace family history. School departments use local housing data to project future class sizes and plan for school growth.

In municipal government, board members refer to meeting minutes to make informed decisions. Planners use maps to evaluate zoning and land use changes. Engineers check road and sewer layouts to plan improvements in transportation and waste management. Administrators use employment dates to determine retirement eligibility.

Business people use records for a variety of purposes. Realtors use assessors’ property valuations to estimate real estate prices. Surveyors review tax records and lot size information.

Who is Responsible for These Records?

Municipalities are responsible for the management, preservation, and accessibility of their records. "Local government officials shall carefully protect and preserve the records of their office from deterioration, mutilation, loss or destruction," according to 5 MRSA 95-B (6).

The clerk is responsible for the care of permanent records — birth, marriage, and death certificates — and often is charged with maintaining minutes of meetings; ordinances; and other records having historic value for the municipality. Clerks clearly recognize their responsibility for the "most important" town records; however, often there is no comparable person who feels responsible for the condition of tax, police, planning or other records.

Records management, even in small towns, is a demanding job requiring special training, organizational skill, knowledge of federal and state regulations, and continuing education in technology, disaster planning, and preservation. While immediate operational demands often get priority, the clerk and others should be given the resources to protect the records that frequently protect the municipality itself when legal controversies arise.

What to Keep/How Long?

Through the Archives Advisory Board, the state provides uniform rules on how long different records must be kept, how they should be destroyed, and what requirements computerized systems holding permanent records should meet. These are published as "Rules for the Disposition of Local Government Records" and have been distributed to each municipality. Additional copies are available from the State Archives and on the Internet at http://www.maine.gov/sos/arc/recmgmt/localgov/localhom.htm. They can also be downloaded as an MS-WORD 2.0 document from ftp://ftp.state.me.us/pub/sos/cec/rcn/apa/29/255/255c010.doc. (Look for Secretary of State, then Archives. It’s Chapter 10.)

Managing the Records

The job of a town clerk is becoming increasingly complicated and increasingly professionalized. As regulations and town planning have affected more aspects of life, the trend has been for even small-town clerks to work in the town office rather than in their homes. The proliferation of paper and the expense of storage mean that clerks recognize the necessity for properly managing the records they produce.

Organizational Setting

Clerks feel a very strong sense of responsibility for the obviously valuable records – town meeting records, vital statistics – but the condition of other historical records is left largely to chance. A clerk is not primarily concerned with the historical value of the materials held, but with carrying on the necessary business of the town. As a result, active records are usually cared for, while other manuscript materials are "out of sight, out of mind."

The organization and condition of municipal records is seldom the result of a long term plan, but the result of random factors, such as the amount of storage space, whether the same person is the treasurer as well as the clerk, the clerk’s background, and the physical distance between departments. Since the clerk receives retention schedules and information about organizing records, other departments are dependent on the clerk for information, but clerks do not usually have a supervisory role over these departments.

From surveys, the Archives found that:

• Only 29% of the clerks polled are responsible for all of the town’s records.

• Very few local government officials have had any training in taking care of their historical records.

• Only one third of the town clerks said they had attended workshops on caring for their historical records.

• Most clerks were unaware of services offered by the Maine State Archives in caring for their historical records.

Most municipal officials have a basic understanding of what they should do to comply with Archives-based rules, but few have a fuller comprehension of the concepts involved. As a result, they are not able to take the initiative in planning for the town’s records.

Conditions

The condition of municipal records in Maine varies widely among the various cities and towns. Since 1897, state law has stipulated that towns of more than 1,300 inhabitants provide fireproof safes or vaults for town records — a law that has not been enforced.

Towns and cities are generally not well equipped to preserve and protect their records or to make them available for research. Some 179 municipalities have suffered total or partial losses by fire; six have suffered total or partial loss of records by flood, 41 others have had significant records lost by unknown cause. In smaller towns with no municipal office, officials have conducted business out of homes or private offices — a situation that has contributed to alienation or loss of municipal records over the years.

Many local government records are improperly stored. Almost one-third of the town clerks reported that records were stored either in damp areas or areas that are alternately hot and cold. Many infrequently referenced records are stored in unsupervised areas – the old town hall, the attic, storage closets. Because of lack of training, some records, even those recognized as valuable, are neglected or improperly cared for. On-site visits revealed books that had been "repaired" with harmful Scotch tape, books leaning and bent, and materials stored haphazardly in boxes.

Some towns have implemented restoration programs for their historical records. About half surveyed had professional restoration work done. Some have implemented a schedule of repairs, budgeting to have a certain amount done each year. Over 60% felt that they had the support of policy makers in their town in caring for their historical records.

Very few municipal officials have a list of the records in their care. Over 80% of the town clerks had no list of their records, and only two out of the 69 reporting had a complete list. This means that if the records are moved or destroyed there is no reference list. An inventory can provide local government officials with information on which to base a plan for organization and preservation.

Not all municipal records are held by the town or city. In surveying historical societies and libraries, several mention local government records as part of their holdings.

Use and Access

All local and state government records are "public" and open to inspection and copying unless specifically exempted by law. Town meeting records and minutes are "public." If a municipal official believes certain records are "confidential," he or she should cite the specific part of the law that designates them as confidential.

If confidential records are interspersed with non-confidential records, the local official (usually the clerk) should make special arrangements for viewing the non-confidential records. This could include selecting the specific record requested or segregating the confidential from non-confidential records, or making copies of the non-confidential records.

In some offices, the public is not allowed to handle the records or view them alone. In busier offices, clerks leave records unsupervised with researchers. They worry about the condition of the records, but don’t feel that they have the right to restrict access. Allowing full access to records in poor condition hastens their deterioration.

If records, especially older, fragile records, are not in good condition, researchers should not have access to them directly. However, a photocopy or microfilm copy should be provided as soon as possible. For special cases, professional help may be necessary to carefully prepare the records for copying. In any event, while a reasonable time might be needed to accommodate researchers, access should not be denied.

If a record exists on computer, the public has a right to that copy as well as to the paper copy, but the officials do not have to make a computerized copy if one does not already exist. In fact, generally, officials are not required to create records just for the convenience of the public. If they do create records, they must retain them according to established rules. Researchers must pay the actual cost of copying records – both paper and computer varieties.

While historical societies and others may obtain copies of local government records, they may not obtain the original records; even those slated for destruction, unless specifically designated as an "alternative repository" as provided in the Rules cited above.

Beginning in the 1950’s, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) microfilmed a large number of municipal vital records; and since the mid-1970’s the Maine State Archives has filmed older records in special arrangements with municipalities. Reference copies of these municipal microfilms are available for research at the Maine State Archives.

Caring for Municipal Records

Scanning?

Many in government, and in the private sector, are being pushed to "digitize" records, in large part because the notion is as popular as Internet stocks on the NASDAQ! It seems like an easy fix for a difficult problem. That in itself should be cause for reflection.

Scanning records as digital images is an excellent choice when the prime objective is to provide high volume, simultaneous, instant access to images of short-term value for users who are willing and able to pay the cost of such a service.

It is a very poor financial and preservation choice to provide security copies of original records. It is a marginal financial and preservation choice to provide security copies and access if that access does not have to be simultaneous (more than one person viewing the same document at the same time) and retrieval time, while short, does not have to be instantaneous.

Municipalities will have to decide if access requirements justify the costs of digitizing records. If so, microfilming for preservation remains essential. While there are detailed American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standards for archival quality microfilming, there are none for "archival quality" digitizing.

Currently the only approved media for permanent storage of records are paper or archival quality microfilm or microfiche. Microforms are human readable requiring no technology greater than a light source and magnification, though computerized indexes can assist retrieval.

While the "Rules for the Disposition of Local Government Records" do allow for maintenance of permanent records on non-permanent media (such as those used in digital imaging systems), certain requirements must be met to insure continued access to those records. These technical requirements imply a continuing management and financial commitment forever to insure that changes in technology and obsolescence of equipment are monitored to preserve that access.

In two hundred years, researchers must be able to view the same image of the record as it now exists. CD’s may last that long; so may 78 RPM records if stored properly. But will they play – in Peoria or anywhere? Until this rapidly changing technology stabilizes, the archival profession across the country overwhelmingly recommends archival microfilming as the preservation strategy when compared to sole reliance on digital imaging.

Assistance

The Maine Historical Records Advisory Board has a grant program funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. Applications are available from Janet Roberts at the Maine State Archives (287-5791 or janet.roberts@state.me.us).

October 1, 1999 is the deadline. Municipalities are eligible if they indicate compliance with the "Rules for Disposition of Local Government Records".

This program covers original historical records, including unpublished material such as manuscripts (reports, minutes of meetings, letters), bound ledgers or account books, photographs, blueprints, tape recordings, motion picture films and video tapes. It does not cover published books or newspapers.

(A broader, better-funded program is pending in this legislative session as part of LD 630, AN ACT to Establish the Maine Communities in the New Century Program. If it passes, municipalities and others can count on continued, extended support for historical records management and preservation, including old newspapers.)

Grant Amounts. Most awards will be in the $500 to $1,500 range, although the Board might consider a larger amount for an extraordinary collection of statewide importance or a collaborative project among municipalities.

For requests of up to $500, the applicant must supply a 1:4 cash match — for every $4 of grant money, the applicant supplies $1. Higher amounts require a higher applicant contribution level. "Cash match" means that staff salaries and overhead may not be used for the match.

Types of Projects. There are two approaches supported by this grant program: Consultant Projects and Archival Projects. The program does not fund exhibits or capital equipment, such as computers, shelving or file cabinets.

1) Consultant Projects: The primary need is for knowledge, and the person you hire only gives advice, including a written report. Examples:

• a consultant assesses the records and recommends conservation treatment and storage options;

• a consultant reviews the records, provides advice as you develop a guide to the records, and recommends future care and/or microfilming.

2) Archival Projects: The primary need is for materials and labor. Examples:

• purchasing archival materials (acid-free folders, photo sleeves, boxes);

• an archivist who prepares a guide to the records;

• microfilming unique important records.

Because the Board’s intent is to preserve historical information, rather than historical artifacts, no deacidification and rebinding of books, which is extremely expensive, will be funded. Microfilming is often the most cost-effective method of preserving information.

The State Archives microfilms municipal records.

Summary

Municipal records are valuable for current business, personal purposes, and historical research. Local officials have protected them for hundreds of years but need better training and resources to effectively continue this tradition, especially in the computer age.

Help with microfilming, training and records scheduling is available through the Maine State Archives. The Maine Historical Records Advisory Board has a grant assistance program with an application deadline of October 1, 1999. The association of Maine Archives and Museums, an affiliate group of the Maine Municipal Association, provides an informative newsletter and workshops. (1-800-452-8786, ext. 296. for information)

Right-to-Know Law

TITLE 1, CHAPTER 13 PUBLIC RECORDS AND PROCEEDINGS
SUBCHAPTER I FREEDOM OF ACCESS

1 401. Declaration of public policy; rules of construction

The Legislature finds and declares that public proceedings exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business. It is the intent of the Legislature that their actions be taken openly and that the records of their actions be open to public inspection and their deliberations be conducted openly. It is further the intent of the Legislature that clandestine meetings, conferences or meetings held on private property without proper notice and ample opportunity for attendance by the public not be used to defeat the purposes of this subchapter.

This subchapter shall be liberally construed and applied to promote its underlying purposes and policies as contained in the declaration of legislative intent.

1 402. Definitions

3. Public records. The term "public records" means any written, printed or graphic matter or any mechanical or electronic data compilation from which information can be obtained, directly or after translation into a form susceptible of visual or aural comprehension, that is in the possession or custody of an agency or public official of this State or any of its political subdivisions, or is in the possession or custody of an association, the membership of which is composed exclusively of one or more of any of these entities, and has been received or prepared for use in connection with the transaction of public or governmental business or contains information relating to the transaction of public or governmental business, except:

  A. Records that have been designated confidential by statute; . . . .

  (A list of specific exceptions is cited in this section.)

1 408. Public records available for public inspection

Except as otherwise provided by statute, every person shall have the right to inspect and copy any public record during the regular business hours of the custodian or location of such record; provided that, whenever inspection cannot be accomplished without translation of mechanical or electronic data compilations into some other form, the person desiring inspection may be required to pay the State in advance the cost of translation and both translation and inspection may be scheduled to occur at such time as will not delay or inconvenience the regular activities of the agency or official having custody of the record sought and provided further that the cost of copying any public record to comply with this section shall be paid by the person requesting the copy.

1 409. Appeals

1. Records. If any body or agency or official, who has custody or control of any public record, shall refuse permission to so inspect or copy or abstract a public record, this denial shall be made by the body or agency or official in writing, stating the reason for the denial, within 5 working days of the request for inspection by any person. Any person aggrieved by denial may appeal therefrom, within 5 working days of the receipt of the written notice of denial, to any Superior Court within the State. If a court, after a trial de novo, determines such denial was not for just and proper cause, it shall enter an order for disclosure. Appeals shall be privileged in respect to their assignment for trial over all other actions except writs of habeas corpus and actions brought by the State against individuals.

1 410. Violations

For every willful violation of this subchapter, the state government agency or local government entity whose officer or employee committed the violation shall be liable for a civil violation for which a forfeiture of not more than $500 may be adjudged.

Local Government Records

TITLE 5, CHAPTER 6 STATE ARCHIVIST
5 95-B. LOCAL GOVERNMENT RECORDS

The following provisions apply to local government records. [1995, c. 148, 10 (new).]

1. Omissions or errors corrected. When omissions or errors exist in local government records, those records must be corrected under oath by the person who was responsible for those local government records, whether or not that person remains in office.

A. If an original town meeting warrant is lost or destroyed, the return may be made or amended on a copy of it. [1995, c. 148, 10 (new).]

2. Safe or vault for preservation. Each local government shall provide a fireproof safe or vault for the preservation of all records that are not current records. The official having responsibility for those records shall deposit them in the safe or vault where those records must be kept except when required for use.

3. Attestation. The records of a local government official may be attested by volume. Each document is sufficiently attested when the volume in which it is recorded bears the attestation with the written signature of the official.

4. Delivery to successor in office. Local government officials shall deliver the records of their office to their successors in office upon the expiration of the officials’ terms.

5. Records available for public use. Each local government official shall make records available for public use under that official’s supervision at reasonable times unless the use of the records is otherwise restricted by law.

6. Protection of records. Local government officials shall carefully protect and preserve the records of their office from deterioration, mutilation, loss or destruction.

7. Disposition of records. Records may not be destroyed or otherwise disposed of by any local government official, except as provided by the Archives Advisory Board. Records that have been determined by the board to possess sufficient archival value must be preserved by the municipality or deposited with the State Archivist.

8. Regulations of Archives Advisory Board. Each local government official shall comply with the standards, procedures and regulations issued by the Archives Advisory Board.