In 1843, when Carbon County was newly carved from the lush forests of northeastern Pennsylvania, paper records were scant. Fast-foward to 2010, and the county archives department is drowning in documents.
"It's incredible to see the amount of paper from 1843 and then look at the amount from 2010," said county Archivist/Records Coordinator Nancy Davidovich. "It's just mind-boggling, the difference in the amount of paper. You can probably fit a couple years' worth on microfilm, starting back in 1843. And now, it takes us 30-35 rolls of film just to do one year" of documents from, say, the prothonotary's office.
The prothonotary's office, which handles civil matters, generates about 4,000 files a year, she said. The Clerk of Courts office generated about 300 files in 1990. "By 1999, it was over 900," Davidovich said.
Davidovich and her two part-time staff have their hands full organizing, microfilming and preserving printed records of marriages, births, divorces, court rulings, property transfers and myriad other documents.
County offices typically purge their files once or twice a year.
"We get everything: We get adult probation, we get domestic relations, we get children and youth, prison files," she said. "Everything eventually ends up with us."
The paperwork is sent, either by truck or hand cart, depending on its volume, to the archives building.
"We usually get at least one year's worth out of all the offices in the courthouse," Davidovich said.
The prothonotary's office, which handles civil matters, usually cleans out its files twice a year, in January and July, she said.
Once at the building, the documents, such as criminal and civil files, are converted to microfilm; after that, with the state's permission, the original documents can be shredded. Some documents can be discarded after seven years.
Antique record books are microfilmed, then carefully wrapped in special paper to preserve them. The staff also responds to written or emailed requests from genealogists, and does preliminary research for them.
Now, all of that hard work has drawn the attention of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. In an Aug. 16 letter to county Assistant Chief Clerk Elois Ahner, PHMC official Susan Hartman wrote of the "impressive records management work that is being done" in Carbon.
Hartman, who heads the Archival and Records Management Services Section of the PHMC's Bureau of Archives and History, praised the removal of the records form the "undesirable basement storage areas they had previously occupied."
Ten years ago, the fragile and aging county records – who immigrated to the county and from where, who married whom and when, the names of babies born in the county and their birth dates, who died here, and when, maps of county roads and court rulings – moldered in the basement of the courthouse on Hazard Square, just a block down from the current archives building at 44 Susquehanna Street.
In August 2000, the county began moving the records from the courthouse with the help of a $14,995 grant from the PHMC. The money bought shelving, storage boxes, a microfilm camera and film and readers/printers.
Davidovich appreciates the move.
"We're grateful that we're here in this building and not in the basement any more," she said. "Thanks to the commissioners for having the foresight to move us. We're trying, to the best of our ability, to improve it."
The new archives building finally opened to the public in October, 2002.
"It's particularly gratifying to see how you have taken a small building not designed for records storage and created the most efficient configuration possible," Hartman wrote. "With just a few well-written grant applications you were successful in obtaining the funds necessary to adapt every part of your building and to manage it most skillfully."
Over the years, PHMC has gifted the archives with grants. Most were used to buy shelving, both fixed and mobile. The narrow first floor of the building is taken up by nine of the huge mobile shelves. The units are easily moved along their tracks by turning a crank wheel on the end. The mobility allows the shelves to be placed tightly together, saving space, Davidovich explained.
However, the recent economic crunch has dried up the grants, she said.
The building is over 2,000 square feet, and is beginning to bulge at the seams, but the county, operating on a frugal budget, has no immediate plans to move the operation.
As Davidovich chats with a reporter, people come in to search through microfilmed documents of property or family records.
Carbon is doing exactly what the PHMC is aiming for in preserving records, Hartman wrote.
"As the state agency assigned archival responsibility for public records under the Historical and Judicial Codes, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum commission's number one priority has been to encourage counties to establish records management programs to minimize storage and retrieval costs and maximize county efficiency," she wrote. "As head of the local government records program for the PHMC, I am pleased to see that our goal of sound and effective management of county records is being realized in Carbon County, thanks to your dedicated staff and the vision of the commissioners."
County Commissioners' Chairman William O'Gurek understands all too well that most people don't realize the sheer volume of paper that county government generates, and the work it takes to keep it all organized.
"Records retention is one of the areas we seldom think about, but the reality of things is that there are new records created every day, all day, and so the volume of work never seems to end. In fact, I think we can safely say that keeping pace with what is generated in one day is a monumental task," he said.
O'Gurek was glad to see the department get some well-deserved recognition.
"The state's recent assessment of our archives' department is something the commissioners are proud of. We believe it speaks to the county's commitment to records preservation as well as the department employees' hard work in helping us to get accomplished what we have to date," he said.
The county will do whatever it can to help the archives department stay on top of its game.
"We know, of course, the county needs to be aware of the importance of preserving each and every document, and I believe you will see a continued commitment to this particular department in terms of providing the department the resources it needs to meet the employees' efforts to make archives' get better all the time," O'Gurek said.
And those employees work hard.
Davidovich works with two part-time staff members, Molly Ebbert and Peter Gulick. Ebbert, who bubbles with enthusiasm for her work, started her job, which includes microfilming documents, in Jan. 2002. She also prepares the files for filming.
"I like it,' she said. Ebbert's favorite aspect is reading the very old documents, especially naturalizations, and anything to do with the Molly Maguires, for example.
The department also gets some help from students from the Carbon-Lehigh Intermediate Unit 21, who come in to help with tasks, such as removing staples from documents, Davidovich said.
Hartman wrote that, on a recent visit, she was "very impressed with the continued improvements to the physical layout and research area. Nancy (Davidovich) demonstrates commendable initiative and has that very valuable trait for a records manager – organizational talent. Keep up the good work!"