Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

March 3, 2014

New home for Monroe County archives dating to 1898


Kokomo Tribune

---- — BLOOMINGTON (AP) — Books on books on books. That’s what the first floor of the North Showers Government Center looked like not too long ago when about five rooms were filled with Monroe County’s oldest records.

Before that, the books were scattered throughout five or six buildings, with many housed in the basement of the Cantol Wax building, where mold was a serious problem.

Now the books are in what hopefully will be their permanent location, the old recorder’s office in North Showers, where county archivist Jon Weiler has nearly all of them stacked neatly on shelving in the room.

On one wall sit most of the commissioners’ records, minutes from meetings as early as the late 1800s. On another shelf rest several books menacingly labeled “Insane Records,” which hold records of commitment proceedings. Lining another area is a complete set of probate order books, dating back to 1898.

It’s been a long-term vision for many county officials to get these books in a single space, away from some of the harsher elements.

The Monroe County Board of Commissioners committed the space to create an archive in the building last spring, but it’s taken a few months to pull the space together.

Most of the books were stored in basements or attics of buildings — not the ideal locations for historic documents.

As the books were being moved out of the Cantol Wax building, the records went through a cleaning process, where the books were first frozen, then placed in the sun, which helped remove the mold.

Mold wasn’t the only problem the books faced. Those that are leather-bound developed red rot, a degradation process that causes the leather to become powdery. Weiler wrapped the outside and inside of the books in a plastic, which should help stop the rot from further development.

“In this case, it has to be done,” he told The Herald-Times. “Otherwise, we won’t be able to keep them much longer.”

Some of the more damaged books are laid out on the shelves, and Weiler will be placing those in boxes for protection. Possibly they can be further restored at a later date.

“I think I might find some way to wrap them up in the plastic,” he said, touching the edge of a book that no longer has a binding. “A sleeve of some sort — I’ll mess around with it a little.”

County recorder Jim Fielder picked up one book and bits of paper flaked out. In the rooms that previously held the records, there are bits of paper and leather on the floor, remnants of what the rooms used to contain.

Monroe County Commissioners included the project in their $2 million general obligation bond for this year, and some of that money will likely go toward a dehumidifier, said Angie Chalfant, commissioners’ administrator. Some money also is designated to repair the basement of North Showers, which caused the archival space to experience some flooding last year. Damage to the floor has been repaired.

The recorder’s and clerk’s offices have worked to get grants for both the space and digitization of records, working with both the Monroe County History Center and IU’s Lilly Library to develop the room.

The plan is some day to have a space similar to the library in the history center, which is home to the first commissioners’ records, land deed records and other assorted books. Here, residents can view the books.

Nicole Bieganski, research library manager at the center, said the center is working to preserve some of the county books that are in its possession. These books have been wrapped in Tyvek, which is made of polyethelene fibers and is waterproof but also difficult to tear, preserving the covers.

Often preservation projects are constrained by resources, but the center received a freezer from the county once the Cantol Wax building was cleared, and is using it to help clean some books. The first commissioners’ books and the land deed books are in the process of being digitized, Bieganski said.

“The preservation of those old books is important; it’s part of our history,” Chalfant said. “We now have a place where we can store these books and care for them.”

In the archive space, the county is working to preserve the story of the county’s founding, development and growth. According to Indiana Code, permanent records — including meeting minutes, payroll records and ordinances — must be kept forever, and can be stored in their original state or on microfilm.

Most of the books relate to property and court history of the county, but the archive also has a hodgepodge of other records: estate books that include inventories of properties with a judgment against them; prosecutor’s records that have bills from lawyers tucked within their pages; 1930s school records listing the majority of parental occupations in Indian Creek Township as “farmer” or “quarryman”; pages of the coroner’s records that detail an accident that killed a pre-teen pedestrian on Hillside Drive in the 1960s.

Fielder found interesting bits of his own family history, reading the record of his great-grandfather’s death.

“It’s little gems like that that make you want to dig into this stuff,” he said.

Weiler said that he can’t open the books when he’s trying to work; it’s too easy to get absorbed in looking at the old-fashioned calligraphy or reading the old stories.

There are a few books missing here and there, which Fielder hopes means they’ve been microfilmed at some point.

“It kind of gets the heart racing to think that those books are gone,” Fielder said.

It’s not uncommon for paper records to get destroyed once they are in another permanent form or have been digitized. At least, some of the county’s older records will get that treatment.

The state of Indiana took almost all of the tax duplicate books, where property taxes owed and paid were listed, and will microfilm them, sending a copy to the county. Once those are microfilmed, the books, which were particularly smelly and moldy, will be gone.

Microfilm is considered the most permanent form of preservation, with the film having a lifespan of 500 years. But Fielder doesn’t necessarily think microfilming and destroying the paper copy is necessarily the best route for all the books.

“You get little notations that are in these books that you don’t get in microfilm,” Fielder said.

There’s still work left in the archive. During the move, pages fell out of the books that will need to find their proper homes. An inventory of the archive also will be taken. Getting the majority of the books to the archive space was the hardest part, Weiler said.

There are still more records at the county highway garage that Weiler and Fielder will need to go through. Once that’s done, the hope is that the county can possibly get grant money for a librarian and open the space to the public.

The majority of the books are finally in one place, which has long been a dream for county officials.

“We’re not going to miss this at all,” Fielder said, looking into an empty room that was once used for storage.