Happy American Archives Month! Ok, so we just missed it. All last month archivists across the country have been celebrating by highlighting their collections and making an extra effort to share them with the public. Here at the Records and Archives Section of the Vanderburgh County Clerk’s Office, we figured there was no time like the present to kickstart a blog focusing on the exact same thing: sharing our material with you!
Now before we can dive into the rich history of Vanderburgh County, let us tell you about ourselves. As the Records and Archives Section of the Clerk’s Office, one of our primary roles is, of course, to be the record-keepers of the Courts. That means when the Courts or the office departments generate anything from case files to marriage licenses to election paperwork, we must collect these records, catalogue them, and keep them accessible as long as required by law.
According to Ind. Code § 5-14-3-2 (n), a “Public record” means any writing, paper, report, study, map, photograph, book, card, tape recording, or other material that is created, received, retained, maintained, or filed by or with a public agency and which is generated on paper, paper substitutes, photographic media, chemically based media, magnetic or machine readable media, electronically-stored data, or any other material, regardless of form or characteristics. So that’s exactly what we hang on to! The state generates retention schedules that tell us how long these items must be kept. Some documents are kept for just a few years, while others must be accessible forever. As such, we have documents that range from the most current records back into the early 1800s.
So why exactly do we have to keep all the old stuff?
The short version is we have to keep it because the public has a right to request to see it. Some records are confidential, according to law, and cannot be viewed without meeting certain requirements, but many are easily viewable.
The “archives” is made up of all records that we must keep permanently. These documents contain key pieces of information that give insight into the history of the county and its citizens. They can be used to track down family genealogy, determine property ownership, research court decisions, analyze historic election results, and provide information about wills and estates. People often request copies of their marriage licenses or divorce decrees. Judges, lawyers, and county offices often need to reference case files as they go about their work. Basically, we serve almost everyone: Judges, Court employees, members of the public, researchers, abstractors, attorneys, state employees, federal employees, various Clerk’s office departments, and other county offices all request records from us for many different reasons.
Ultimately, the state law sets the tone for records:
“A fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government is that government is the servant of the people and not their master. Accordingly, it is the public policy of the state that all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and employees. Providing persons with the information is an essential function of a representative government and an integral part of the routine duties of public officials and employees, whose duty it is to provide the information…” As added by P.L.19-1983, SEC.6. Amended by P.L.77-1995, SEC.1.
That explains what the archives are, but what the heck do the archivists do?
After a public records request is made, someone has to locate that record and/or the information needed from it. The archivist is the keeper of these records. He or she must make sure the records are arranged, described, and catalogued sufficiently so they can be found and accessed both in the present and the future. By managing and organizing the records in a systematic way, it allows the staff to be more efficient throughout the whole records request process as they have to find the document someone has requested and fulfill the request. Archivists also work to put a system in place that will ensure the records that must be kept permanently are carefully preserved. For those records that aren’t kept forever, the archivist helps make sure they are either destroyed in a way compliant with state statute, sent to State Archives, or passed on to an historical society or local organization that can take care of them.
All of this brings us right back to the importance of Archives Month. This is the perfect opportunity for us to refocus on the role our office plays in preserving important pieces of our county’s history. We have recently launched an initiative to more completely catalogue our records, how they are housed, and to identify those records most at risk for loss due to deterioration. This will enable us to answer records requests more quickly and efficiently as well as allow us to create action plans to preserve our documents so they are accessible for centuries to come.
You’ll want to stick around as we continue to celebrate Archives Month(all year long) here at the Clerk’s Office. Indiana’s theme for this year’s Archives Month was “Unlock History” (and you can read about that by clicking here).We’ll be unlocking local history of our own as we work through our inventory, highlighting the fun and fascinating materials that tell the story of Vanderburgh County. Stay tuned!