Friday, May 22, 2009

Record Loss: Is Your County Prepared?

We lost another courthouse this week . . . Jefferson County, Indiana. This was a county that had previously suffered no major record losses. According to news reports, fire broke out about 6 p.m. Wednesday. The facade of the building was spared, but preliminary reports indicate that there was major record loss due to the fire, smoke, and water damage. (One genealogist on Facebook observed that the county officials seemed more elated that the courthouse could be rebuilt with existing facade than they were troubled by the loss of records.) They expect to discover that most vital records and deeds were lost. When I heard about this tragic situation via Facebook, one of my first reactions was to see what sort of records would be available for the county via the Family History Library and Family History Centers. As I began to search, I noted that only deeds through 1891 had been microfilmed. Marriage records were among those which had been microfilmed, but even then they were filmed only through 1923. One of the articles mentioned death certificates. I saw no microfilming of records in this category. Records of adoptions and divorces are also mentioned as being probable losses in another article. When one clicks on court records in the Family History Catalog for Jefferson County, Indiana, there are only two entries which span 1811-1819 -- less than a decade. Probate records have been microfilmed through 1940. These were not mentioned in the articles as possible losses. I don't know if these were in the courthouse or if there might have been an annex. Tax records for only one year (1827) are available on microfilm. Birth records for 1882-1907 and for 1941-1970 have been filmed.

A quick search of the Indiana State Library reveals that few abstracts exist, and these are fall in categories that have been filmed. I saw very few county records described on the state archives site. I was unable to locate a Web site for the county government to determine if digital records were accessible online. I can only conclude that the record loss, particularly for future historians and genealogists, is very tragic because this county was not prepared for such a devastating loss. Even on the state archives site, there was a link to a microfilming service which could have been utilized by the county. I know that we live in tough economic times, but preserving the records of the past should be a high priority. Routine preservation of records, whether digital or by microfilm, with off-site storage of a complete set is something that should be done by all record keepers. We need to ask our county officials what they are doing to minimize record loss should such a tragedy strike our county. We need to encourage them to partner with state libraries or others who provide microfilm and digitization services to make sure that records will be available in the future if a disaster occurs.

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