From Whence G.S. 132?
Since you, dear reader, have found your way here to our dusty cardboard, pulp, and email filled corner of the internet you are probably familiar with the nature of NC G.S. 132. If you are a records custodian, either at the state or local level you are no doubt, at least, passingly familiar with our obscure title and its impact on offices and agencies throughout the State. We reference it every day. We give G.S. 132 entire blocks of workshop time to explain its nuances, its tricksy-ness, and its ineffable power to compel us to fill more and more boxes with work product that once closed may never be opened again.
My goal with this series is to uncover the history of the venerable statute that graces the masthead of this blog. In part 1, I will dive into the origins of the State Archives and the seeds of public records law planted in first years of the 20th century. In part 2, I explore the various cultural and political forces behind the creation of G.S. 132.
The common name for G.S. 132 is the Public Records Law. Or, as it was originally introduced in 1935, Senate Bill 92 “An Act to Safeguard the Public Records In North Carolina.” Although the impetus for public records law can be traced as far back as colonial statutes requiring the preservation of deeds, the desire to ensure the preservation of public history and thus public records falls firmly in the modern era.
The North Carolina Historical Commission
The precursor to today’s Department of Cultural resources was the North Carolina Historical Commission. Established in 1903 in chapter 767 of the public laws, the commission consisted of five men appointed by the governor and was charged with a mission to “collect, edit, and publish valuable documents elucidating the history of the State.”1
The legislative language may seem dry, but certainly for the men appointed to the commission it minimized their ardent belief that preserving the history of the state was a “patriotic duty.” For at least some of the first five commissioners appointed by the governor, this was not some idle sinecure, but instead a duty to democracy and the state. The commission, in its first report to the Governor, called upon the citizen’s of North Carolina to scour “the dark corners and dusty archives, … pigeon holes, vaults, desks, and cellars” of the State for “documents, records, private and public letters, and other manuscripts, which as matters now stand are of absolutely no value to their possessors or to the public.”2 The records held no value for the commissioners primarily because these records were laying fallow essentially lost to history, until “all patriotic citizens who love the State and her magnificent history” would come forward and deposit their valuable records with the commission.
The report of the commission detailing the first two years showed that passion for history and historical preservation was then, as now, a tough sell. In the first biennial report published in 1907, R.D.W. Conner, the first Secretary of the Commission, wrote that they despite being “handicapped by inadequate powers and funds” had nevertheless made some acquisitions and published some works. The list was less than two pages.3
Section 1. That an Historical Commission be and the same is
hereby established, whose duty it shall be to have collected from the
files of old newspapers, from court records, church records and elsewhere
valuable documents pertaining to the history of the State.4
Despite an early focus on private papers and historical publications, foundations were in place for a public records program in the State. In the 1903 law, public records were largely absent except for a single reference to “court records.” Five years later, however, the majority of the report was devoted to the importance of the “public archives” in Raleigh, that housed “the largest, collection of such documents in existence … cover[ing] more than two hundred years of our history.”5
Image of Legislative Records in 1908
Distressed by the haphazard maintenance of these vital government records, the commission made provisions for a room “on the third floor of the east wing of the Capitol” that was “much too small for the work to be done” where they could begin the task of ordering and preserving those records previously thrown “helter-skelter here and there, in leaky attics in various parts of the city.”6
In my next blog post, I’ll draw the connections between this early desire to preserve the memory of the state through its public records, and the political and cultural forces that led to the North Carolina public records law, our very own G.S. 132.