Users of the local records retention and disposition schedules will find the disposition instruction “a) Retain records with historical value permanently” for certain records series. For example, in the Municipal schedule, you find this disposition instruction for agendas and meeting packets (Standard 1, Item 3), fund drive and event records (Standard 1, Item 33), management studies (Standard 1, Item 43), the projects file (Standard 1, Item 57), annual budgets (Standard 4, Item 4), popular annual financial reports (Standard 4, Item 47), publications (Standard 15, Item 2), news and press releases (Standard 15, Item 4), speeches (Standard 15, Item 6), and others.
You also find this disposition instruction for the histories file (Standard 1, Item 39). The histories file contains records concerning the history of a municipality and its employees. These records are published and unpublished histories, biographical data, photographs, newspaper clippings, and other related records.You may notice that “a) Retain records with historical value permanently” often is followed by “b) Destroy in office remaining records when superseded or obsolete.”
(The retention note “Records may contain historical value. Contact the State Archives of North Carolina before destroying.” is different. This retention note is used for records that the State Archives may wish to accession.)
We have identified these records series as potentially having historically valuable documents to your local government. Records with historical value help us understand the past by documenting significant events, actions, decisions, conditions, relationships, and similar developments. These records have ongoing, enduring administrative, legal, fiscal, or evidential importance for the government or its citizens. These records deserve permanent preservation. To learn more about historical value, please read Kyna Herzinger’s posts here and here. For these records series, and any other nonpermanent records series, you can decide that certain records have historical value and that you will retain them permanently. The remaining records without historical value will be destroyed at the end of their retention period.
In 1917, the Report on the Condition of the Public Records of the State of New Jersey said in the first paragraph, “Public records are memory in the concrete.” When deciding which records to preserve permanently, you can ask yourself and your colleagues, “What do we want to remember?”
For example, you may decide that, yes, the records of the design, construction, and launch of your new town hall or county headquarters are permanent records. You were heavily involved. You personally remember the long hours, tough decisions, and grand opening fanfare. These records document an important time in your history.
What about records created before your tenure? When considering their historical value, ask yourself: Do old hands in your office still talk about that event, that project, that court case? Do the records document an event or accomplishment still celebrated years later? Are the records evidence of the contributions of a person still honored and remembered? Do citizens, researchers, and the media still request records concerning a decision or an action?
Once you designate records as having historical value, you commit to their permanent preservation. You can document your justification of their permanency, so that your successors understand why these records are being kept.
You can organize your historical records, so that future personnel know their contents. You can cull duplicates and transitory records, order the records logically, and clearly label file folders. You can also write a description of the records. An index or inventory of the folders, or even individual documents, is helpful for future access by the interested.
This is a great project for an intern or volunteer. A student in public history, archives, records management, and/or library science would be a great candidate. The intern or trained professional could even write a finding aid. A finding aid, according to the Society of American Archivists, is “A description of records that gives the repository physical and intellectual control over the materials and that assists users to gain access to and understand the materials.”
Your historical records also require protection. They can be stored in a secure, fireproof, waterproof location, such as a safe, vault, or secure records room, in the same way you store your essential records like governing board minutes. Lacking a vault, you can analyze potential risks to your records, then carefully select the most protected location in your building. You can consult the State Archives for advice.
Your Time Capsule
As you work hard to preserve your records with historical value, consider them a time capsule for your local government, but a time capsule that you protect. Many institutions hide a box with an era’s mementos for opening in 25 or 50 years. By then, the time capsule may be forgotten. If remembered, its location is forgotten. A search is futile. Or, if found, the capsule reveals only that the mementos disintegrated with the years.
Because you identified your historically valuable records and worked on their permanent preservation, the important records of your local government will exist in 25 or 50 years. You will be ready when the next researcher walks through your door and says, “You must remember when …”