County's archives center running out of room as it turns 10
Friday, February 4, 2011
Storing more than 200 years of court documents, tax and marriage records and wills takes some serious space. As the Cape Girardeau County Archive Center prepares to celebrate its 10th anniversary this month, space is something it doesn't have in abundance.
"In the next three to five years, we'll be completely full," director Steven Pledger said.
Pledger said that when the facility opened to the public in 2001, he and other officials thought there would be enough space in the building to accommodate the county's records for 20 to 25 years.
"We had no idea there'd be that much paperwork generated," he said.
Even with the advancements in technology and digital imaging, he said, the county will need a place to store documents.
"You're going to always have paper documents. They're too easy to manipulate, electronic documents," he said.
He said laws require some documents to be in paper form and require them to be maintained forever.
Pledger said county commissioners know the center is running out of room, but as far as he knows there is no plan to expand the facility or provide another storage space.
Last month the county purchased the house on the east side of the center. There has been discussion of whether to use the space as a center extension or to make it a parking lot for people doing business at the administrative building, courthouse and archive center.
While Pledger said he would love to have additional storage areas, he understands the need for parking.
"We don't have parking over here, either. That's an issue that we have," he said.
He said patrons often park on neighboring private property, upsetting the property owner, or they have to park at a nearby church and walk. The walk isn't too far, but Pledger said many of the center's visitors are elderly and walking any distance can be taxing.
Pledger said that despite being a historian, he wouldn't be too upset if the house were demolished to create parking space. Other than being old, the house has no historic value, he said.
Commissioner Paul Koeper said no definite plan is in place for the newly acquired building. He said when the house went on the market, commissioners recognized an opportunity to secure it for county use, whether it be a parking lot or an archive center extension.
"We're leaving it open. Owning it is the first step," he said.
Snakes and water
Pledger said if the center runs out of space, the county could be looking at a less-than-ideal situation for storing its documents. Before the center was built, he said, documents were stored in any available space, including empty bathrooms, basements, the courthouse bell tower and the dungeon at the Common Pleas Courthouse. The dungeon was a particularly bad place for document storage, he said.
"There were snakes down there, and water," he said.
Center assistant director Drew Blattner said the sandstone walls of the dungeon were in such bad shape, pieces of the wall would fall onto the documents. There was also heavy moisture in the air.
"You could just smell the mold and mildew there," Blattner said.
In the center, the staff monitors temperature and humidity levels to ensure the documents are being maintained properly. Blattner said that can be tricky because paper requires as little humidity as possible, while books require more. As a compromise, the humidity is set between 30 and 40 percent and the temperature stays between 68 and 72 degrees, ensuring centuries-old documents are protected for future generations.
The oldest document in the center dates to 1798, when the county was still part of the kingdom of Spain. It involves a man asking Louis Lorimier for permission to re-enter the kingdom after Lorimier had banished him for having an affair with another man's wife. The man was eventually allowed to return to the area, provided he gave the woman's husband a horse.
Most of the early documents in the center are written in Spanish. There are also records written in French, German, Hungarian and English. The center also maintains 19th-century newspapers from the Cash-Book Journal, the Jackson Deutscher Volksfreund, which later became the Cape County Post, and the Cape County Post.
Pledger said most of the people who visit the center do so to research their family history or to get copies of older court cases. He said the center typically receives about 170 patrons a month in addition to phone calls and requests by mail and e-mail. In January the center received 124 visitors, 49 e-mail requests, 54 telephone requests and eight mail requests.
Toured by archivists
Pledger said when the center opened, it was one of three county-funded archives in the state. Now there are 10 or 12, but, he said, the Cape Girardeau County center remains one of the state's best.
"Some of them are in converted buildings and buildings that aren't really great for archives," he said. He said the state archives center often sends archivists to his facility for tours.
The archive center is part of the clerk's office and Cape Girardeau County Clerk Kara Clark Summers said she regularly receives compliments on the center and its staff. As the clerk, Clark Summers' office is charged by statute with maintaining the county's record.
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