[Below is a letter from Sarah Koonts, Director of the Division of Archives and Records.]
Dear Friends and Partners:
You may have heard about the recent destruction of local records stored in Franklin County’s courthouse basement. I can assure you that no one cares more about the history of this state or its documentary records than staff of the Division of Archives and Records. We work hard every day with our partners to provide guidance and assistance to state and local officials concerning the routine management, preservation and disposition of their records.
If records are deemed to have permanent legal, evidentiary or historical value, the Archives is responsible for the long-term preservation of these records. In order to better understand how we interacted with Franklin County officials to provide this advice and guidance once they discovered a collection of water and mold damaged records in the courthouse basement, we are providing additional information on this chain of events. We hope this clears up misconceptions about the role of the Division of Archives and Records in this specific situation and others regarding the proper maintenance and destruction of public records.
The State Archives does not mandate destruction of records. In some instances, after consultation with the State Archives, local records creators can continue to maintain non-permanent records or transfer them to other entities (historical societies, public libraries, etc.). Based on the professional opinion from the safety and health officer from the Administrative Office of the Courts, the mold situation in Franklin County made options such as these difficult. Ultimately, however, the local governmental agencies make the final decision on whether records not preserved by the State Archives are retained locally or destroyed.
In 2013 the Division of Archives and Records was notified by Franklin County representatives that government records dating from the 1880s through 1969 had been stored in the courthouse basement where a leaking air conditioner caused water damage to some of the records and exacerbated mold growth in the room. At the request of county officials, Division staff visited the Franklin County Courthouse August 21, 2013, to discuss the potential disposition of the records stored in the basement.
As is standard practice when government officials want to transfer or destroy inactive public records, we ask the custodial office to consult their approved records schedule. If they have additional questions or want to destroy records not identified on the records schedule, we require a full inventory. Based on the October 11, 2013 inventory submitted to our office by the Clerk of Superior Court, it was determined that a majority of the documents in the basement were financial records that were decades past the recommended period of retention. The remaining records fell under the custodianship of several local county offices including the County Manager, the Register of Deeds, and the Clerk of Superior Court. A substantial quantity of the remaining records contained confidential information, including personally identifiable and medical information.
Many of the records in question have been eligible for destruction since the 1960s and have routinely been destroyed in other counties in the state in accordance with the schedule. For example, records mentioned in several blog posts, such as the delayed birth certificate applications and the old marriage license health certificates have been routinely destroyed by schedule as the information is duplicated in other records or non-archival. Furthermore, the confidential information contained in these records mean that only the custodial agency could retain them. They could never be given to a local historical society or library. Again, based on information given to our office, we verified the appropriate retention period for all records on the list provided. The State Archives took custody of 15 cubic feet of civil and criminal case files, 4 volumes of justice dockets, Criminal Court (1960s), and 1 volume of Records of Magistrates (1880s) with the permission of the Clerk of Superior Court and the Administrative Office of the Courts. Since these records were exposed to active mold we are taking every precaution recommended prior to reformatting these materials. We also asked that if additional archival records were discovered in the basement that we be notified so that we could assume custody. The final decision of the date and method of destruction for the remaining records lies with the local officials, and questions about the actual destruction should be relayed to them.
Not every piece of paper can be saved from every government office in North Carolina without creating an undue burden on government offices and taxpayers. That is the nature of records management – to work under professional standards with records creators to determine overarching series of records that document the actions of governments, protect the legal rights of citizens, and inform the history of our state.
The State Archives of NC has been preserving North Carolina history for more than 110 years. We have one of, if not the most, comprehensive collections of state and local government records in any state of the country, including a substantial collection of permanently valuable Franklin County records that are available for public access, such as 101 volumes, 176 fibredex boxes and 1,066 microfilm reels of records. We are proud to continue this tradition of preservation and access to the permanently valuable records of the state.
The State Archives of North Carolina remains committed to preserving our state’s records.
Director, Division of Archives and Records
N.C. Department of Cultural Resources