With old books suffering, county begins preservation process|[07/08/07]

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 8, 2007

Written records are the footprints of history, especially those that chronicle ownership of land in Warren County.

Methods of record keeping have evolved from feather-trimmed quills that formed most elegant calligraphy to computer databases capable of storing more files than past chancery clerks could have dreamed.

While looking up land records Warren County is just a point and a click away thanks to a kiosk of computers in the records room in Chancery Clerk Dot McGee’s office, it’s the old, heavy books in need of special attention.

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&#8220We can’t lose these things,” McGee said. &#8220But, you can’t read out of some of the older pages.”

In an effort to keep up with the times and still preserve delicate documents dating more than a century, McGee will oversee an $84,000 improvement of much of county land record books by Peeler & Sons Bookbinders, a Bonham, Texas-based firm specializing in preserving public records since 1953.

Expected to start in the coming months, the work will entail re-binding 139 volumes of deeds, many of which are falling out of protective casings after years of page-turning by inquisitive hands.

The company will tear down loose pages and trim them, then slide them into acid-free mylar sleeves for placement into new bindings.

Fifteen more books will be split into two volumes, making for easier handling by big and small hands alike.

&#8220Some are just too heavy for these girls to pick up,” McGee said, handling one of the 1,359 land record books, some of which have had its contents scanned into a computer database.

In recent years, Circuit Clerk Shelly Ashley-Palmertree has overseen a similar conversion of her office space, using a sliding storage unit to store old records from circuit, civil and youth court cases.

In the chancery clerk’s office, that process has been ongoing since 1984, the first year of then-Chancery Clerk Oren Bailess’ three terms in office. Upon retiring in 1995, Bailess said the goal of computerizing the county’s voluminous collection of records was so people could view only what they needed.

Mattie Gaines, a longtime employee of the office who has served under four chancery clerks, remembers the tedium involved when managing the county’s land records began the transformation from recording to storing.

&#8220We did everything manually,” Gaines said, adding that the usual resistance to technology took hold. &#8220The attorney’s didn’t like it at first.”

A longer-term goal of growing the county’s database in both the chancery and circuit clerks’ offices is to electronically scan all court records so the county can be rid of the aging books, plus claims docket records and official board minutes, a collection maintained by another fixture of county government, Huey Purvis.

&#8220I know a little about a lot and a lot about a little,” Purvis said, handling a few vintage chancery court record books in a storage room below the courthouse.

There, some books containing records dating to the 1850s fall apart at Purvis’ touch.

Over time, each chancery clerk had a different method of preserving the books, sometimes using the dominant media of the time and, on a few occasions, resorting to temporary fixes.

&#8220The worst thing was the Scotch tape,” Purvis said.

A full-time records manager since 1996, Purvis hopes the electronic age can take hold for all records pertaining to local government courts.

&#8220Utility is more important than looks,” he said.