Destruction of Franklin County records draws international attention

sbarr@newsobserver.comJanuary 14, 2014 

— The story of a decision to destroy a long-neglected collection of records discovered in the moldy basement of the Franklin County courthouse has raced across blogs and social media in recent weeks.

Online readers from around the world have joined local residents in debating whether county officials should have destroyed the records, which dated from the mid-1800s to the 1960s. For most, the answer is no, despite a long list of reasons from professional archivists why the records weren’t essential to keep.

The decision came after state officials reported that most of the records were well past the dates when they usually would have been discarded and that the mold on them posed a health risk.

County Manager Angela Harris said the final decision to destroy the records was made based on those findings.

“At the end of the day, taking everything into consideration, health and safety of our citizens and staff prevailed,” she said.

In some cases, outraged readers worried that valuable information was lost that could have helped researchers trace their family roots or understand the area’s history. Even the smallest detail – a date, a name – could help, they say.

Diane Taylor Torrent, a member of the Heritage Society of Franklin County, posted one of the first online accounts of what happened to the records, which has since been shared hundreds of times. She’s not surprised the story has spread, given the enthusiasm people have for genealogy and local history.

“The story keeps growing, and I think it will continue to grow until we get a response from our management about why they did this,” Torrent said.

Harris released an explanation of the county’s actions late Wednesday, including a detailed timeline. She said the explanation will be included on the agenda for the county commissioners’ meeting on Tuesday and may be posted online as well.

Harris said she intends to offer additional public education about which Franklin County records are available in the state’s archives and the schedules that determine when a county can destroy records.

“There’s a lot of misinformation on the Internet and a lot of people who have had some disappointments as a result,” she said.

Sarah Koonts, director of the Archives and Records Division at the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, said the department has been flooded with emails and phone calls about the records. She has been taken aback by the accusatory tone of some of the emails and the rush to assume the worst of the archivists.

But Koonts said she is also encouraged to know people care about history.

“I would rather people be concerned about their records than not,” she said.

Basement discovery

The records were discovered in the basement last spring, with help from Patricia Burnette Chastain, the new Franklin County Clerk of Court, Torrent said.

Soon after, the Heritage Society began organizing them. While some had been ruined by water damage or mold, others appeared to be in good condition. They included everything from canceled checks and receipts to old photos and a letter from a Franklin County solider serving in France during World War I, Torrent said.

Then, in August, state archives representatives visited to assess the records collection at the request of the county. They compared the documents with existing retention schedules, which dictate how long a county must keep records; examined an inventory of the items in the basement provided by the county; and reviewed a report by a state safety and health specialist about the mold in the basement.

Ultimately, Archives officials concluded that many of the items already had passed their retention dates and could be destroyed. Some had been eligible for destruction since 1964. Other records were confidential and couldn’t be released, or they included information that already was available in other documents held by the archives. And the mold problem was a serious risk, even where it couldn’t be seen.

The state kept some records dealing with civil and criminal actions.

In an October letter that presented an overview of their findings, archives staff urged county officials to “take immediate action to destroy these records. No other disposition is advised, including the donation of the records to a nongovernment entity for any reason. The health and safety issue concerning these records outweighs all other considerations.”

Koonts stressed that the county still could have chosen to keep the records.

“We can advise, recommend, strongly suggest, but we never are the final word on destruction,” she said.

Torrent said the county should not have moved ahead with the destruction after the state’s report. Torrent prepared the inventory the county sent to the state and noted in a letter to officials that she felt it wasn’t complete.

The Heritage Society had volunteered to accept responsibility for the cleanup and organization of the records, even with the mold issue. Setting aside the records, cleaning the basement and then deciding what to do would have been a better solution, Torrent said.

“It’s simple, it’s easy, and you don’t have all of these people upset,” she said.

Victoria Young, president of the N.C. Genealogical Society, learned about the records after they had been destroyed.

Young thinks much of the reaction to the story has been overblown. But the events are an important reminder to both amateur and professional historians and genealogists to maintain a relationship with local officials about records, so that decisions can be made in a public and transparent way, she said.

“You should be savvy enough to know what the laws are,” she said. “Make sure that they do what they’re supposed to do.”

Barr: 919-836-4952

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