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SAVING THE STATE'S PUBLIC RECORDS

Fire at the Capitol in 1911 did something toward warning the Legis-
lature of the danger, but much remains to be done in rural districts

BY DR. JAMES SULLIVAN
State Director of Archives and History

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INCE the destruction of the valuable records and manuscripts in the capitol fire at Albany in 1911, there has been a commendable activity in almost all parts of the State in the the matter of proper safeguards for public records. That fire taught the authorities that large quantities of combustible material stored in wooden book cases and other containers made a veritable fire-trap of even a fireproof building.

Dr. James Sullivan

Not the least part of the lesson learned, however, was that conditions existing in the capitol were duplicated in all parts of the State where public records were kept. Records destroyed at Albany could not be replaced by copies because in a fire in some town, village or county record office the originals or duplicates had likewise been destroyed.

This brought about the enactment of the public records law in June, 1911 (Chapter 380 Laws of New York, 1911). By this law there was created a supervisor of public records, whose duty it became to examine into the conditions of the records, books, pamphlets, documents, manuscripts, archives, maps and papers kept, filed or recorded in the several public offices of the counties, cities, towns, villages, or other political divisions of the State, or of any public body, board, institution or society, created under

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The greatest difficulty is encountered in the towns and villages where the willingness on the part of officials and boards to take a chance with fire risk is most common. Rural counties, though sometimes providing fireproof rooms, are commonly most negligent in keeping the bindings of the records in good condition, and in providing their officials with decent equipment for proper arrangement and classification.

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FORMER OFFICE WASHINGTON COUNTY CLERK

Inflammable equipment in an inflammable building explains why so many of our records are incomplete. Few county offices like the above still remain

This neglect is frequently due to ignorance of the law, but is also sometimes to be attributed to an unwillingness to comply with the provisions of the statute because it involves the expenditure for new equipment and because of a feeling that as the records have not been burned they never will be, even though kept in wooden receptacles.

In a State the size of New York the quality and ability of the officers in charge of the records varies a great deal. In some places their work commands the highest praise while in others it could scarcely be worse. Where

the work is good, it is usually to be noted that the salaries paid are high, and when the work is poor, the remuneration is pitifully small. There is no State law regulating the salaries paid to our local record keeping officials, but in communities where records are poorly cared for, it will generally be found that the local political division is seemingly expecting to get a high grade of service for too low wages.

Again, the community is only too likely to look at the local record office as one to be given for political reasons. Except in the villages the clerks are all elected at popular elections and the electors do not seemingly ask themselves what qualifications the candidate has for fulfilling the duties of his office. When an excellent man is in office they do not keep him, but seem rather inclined to turn him out to give somebody else a chance, regardless of the newcomer's ability to fulfill the duties of the office.

As long as such an attitude on the part of the public continues, we can not expect to have any uniformity in the quality of the care given our public records. The nature of the work done is such as is given by librarians, archivists and high grade secretaries. These are the kinds of positions that ought to have fairly permanent tenure in order to insure the best work.

In the illustrations which accompany this article an attempt has been made to show former conditions and the improvements which have been made. Very naturally all of the new county, city, town and village buildings which have been put up within the last six years cannot be shown. Nor can the

cases in which records seemingly lost have been recovered be given, nor the many places in which records stored in heaps on the floor have been properly classified and filed.

Unfortunately there are still hundreds of cases where records are missing and these will not be satisfactorily accounted for, if ever, until complete inventories of all the records in all of the offices of the political subdivisions of the State are made. How large a task this is can only be realized when it is understood that there are 1544 such offices in the State. As a matter of business each one of the officials in charge of these offices should have an inventory of the various classes of papers, the number of files and volumes turned over to him by his predecessor, together with a list of those missing, if any, but as a matter of practice this is never done. This omission of ordinary business procedure leads to much recriminatory accusation between incoming and outgoing officials when it is discovered that papers or books are missing.

The Statute provides that public records must not be taken out of public record offices, but cases are not uncommon where they have been sent out into firetrap binderies for rebinding, been lent to lawyers and other private individuals, or been taken away by public officials. In some cases they have never been recovered and in others law suits have been threatened in order to get them back.

Congestion is one of the most common evils in the public record offices. Sometimes this is due to the fact that in erecting buildings

and constructing vaults the officers in charge do not make sufficient allowance for expansion. Generally speaking, however, it is due to the accumulations of years. Though under the statute the division of public records has the authority to order the destruction or disposal of records there has as yet been no move along these lines because of the lack of unanimity among record keeping officials as to what records may just as well be disposed of. as well be disposed of. The division is engaged on a plan which it hopes to put into operation in the near future to give relief along these lines.

Frequent changes in legislation involving the use of new books and forms cause much trouble to local record keeping officials. Sometimes the books prescribed can not be put into even the very large safe which has been provided and must be left on the outside or a new safe bought especially for the new form of book. In a year or two a new law or a new official order from Albany

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SUFFOLK COUNTY CLERK'S OFFICE, RIVERHEAD

The interior of one of the rooms after renovation
of the building and installation of new furniture

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