Louisiana’s archives in ‘state of emergency,’ historians say
By LEX TALAMO
Louisiana’s archival and historical records are in a state of emergency. Their destruction "would represent nothing less than a devastating and irreparable loss" of the state’s historical and cultural heritage, according to historians who recently gathered for the Louisiana Historical Association’s annual conference.
A summary by the Louisiana Historical Association called Louisiana’s historical archives "endangered treasures."
"They are more than scraps of yellowed paper and tattered leather-bound journals," the document stated. "Losing them will sever us off from our past and impair our ability to remain informed citizens, so critical to the functioning of democracy."
About 50 historians from across Louisiana as well as from Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, Massachusetts and even Germany gathered to discuss the preservation of records.
"We all love history, and we’re trying to protect it," said Michelle Riggs, a panelist and archivist at LSU-Alexandria. "This is a call to arms. This is everyone’s history."
The association identified several important uses of archival records by members of the public including searching for information about family histories, by teachers using historical records for lesson plans and classroom discussions and by attorneys who use documents to establish chains of title in property transfers.
Laura McLemore, the associate curator and archivist of LSU Shreveport’s Noel Memorial Library, said the state of the state’s archives and the preservation of the state’s history were "a matter of great concern."
She cited how many of the state’s historical documents are housed in public universities or institutions that leave them vulnerable to damage from Louisiana’s weather and climate, including the LSUS Archives, whose roof experienced significant leaking in 2016.
"As a result of both natural and man-made disasters, the sources of documented history of our states are imperiled, some imminently," McLemore said.
To protect important documents from roof leakage, McLemore and staff went to great lengths to encase the documents in protective covers, shield them under heavy polyester sheeting and move them to rooms without leakage.
In addition to emergency procedures, LSUS has to procedures to protect and preserve documents include storing documents, having staff that monitor the temperature, humidity and exposure of the documents to light, as well as storing the documents in acid-free, lignin-free boxes and folders. All documents also are sheathed in mylar sleeves when handled by researchers.
McLemore said that LSUS and many public universities have long histories of collecting and preserving historical documents. But there is great concern among historians over some of the most critically important records to state history, which are often kept in parish courthouses without staff appropriately trained to handle them.
Those documents can include deed records, successions, election records and tax assessor’s records, McLemore said.
"The crisis is directly related to the state’s persistent budget problems," McLemore wrote in an email. "Clerks of Court have been left to solve the problem of storing and preserving parish records on their own. Funding and facilities vary widely, but I think it’s safe to say most parishes do not have the resources to appropriately preserve and maintain their records."
McLemore said some parish clerks have decided to digitize their records, with resulting fear from historians that the originals might be shredded due to the lack of storage space for them.
"Digitization is a convenient means of access, but it is not a solution to permanent preservation," McLemore said. "Sometimes digital copies are not legible enough or some piece gets skipped in the process, so maintaining the original records provides assurance that the complete records will always be a back-up to the digital files."
Doug Harrison, executive director for the Louisiana State Archives Department of State, identified threats to Louisiana’s archives including inconvenient locations for archival facilities, lack of financial resources, minimal staffing and inadequate storage space, as well as a lack of disaster preparedness.
The floods of 2016 were "only the latest of the many perils" that have threatened Louisiana’s rich archival heritage, according to the summary.
Preston Huff, a special advisor for the National Archives and Records Administration, also cited "disasters, historic floods, hurricanes, fires, neglect, and records being kept in courthouses where they don’t even know they exist" as problems Louisiana’s archives have faced.
The overall lack of financial support from the government and the public are also barriers, Huff said.
"You have to have some legislators who have clout and an interest in Louisiana history," he said a the conference.
Harrison agreed that the involvement of committed political leaders is essential, especially given the state’s budget constraints.
"Parish and municipal governments have the most limited resources to address these problems," Harrison said, "but it’s going to take more than angry historians and records custodians rushing in with red faces and clenched fists."
Rebecca Hamilton, a state librarian and one of the panelists, said President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts boded ill for historic preservation.
"We are going to have money problems. Those cuts would impact us deeply," she said.
A 2010 survey by the Louisiana Archives and Manuscripts Association of 83 institutions found that many of the institutions lacked complete inventories for their collections, as well as a need for plans for storage and maintenance of digital collections as well as preservation and disaster preparedness education and training.
The summary identified preserving court records statewide as one of its main priorities.
One of the association’s next steps is assembling a coalition of stakeholders interested in preserving Louisiana’s archives: including the secretary of state, the governor and the lieutenant governor, the Louisiana Parish Clerks Association, the Louisiana Library and Museum associations, and the Louisiana Genealogical and Historical Society, among others.
Other action items include finding additional sources of funding and starting a campaign to raise public awareness about the importance of preserving archival records.
Long-term goals include digitizing parish court records and making them available to the public online, constructing off-site archival facilities with appropriate environmental and security controls and also establishing relationships with archivists and historians.
The panelists emphasized the importance of preserving history even in the midst of looming social problems such as homelessness and economic decline.
"We remain of the opinion that the loss of this archival heritage potentially represents as much of a long-term threat to our democratic way of life and institutions— to who we are as a people — as does the closing of a school, public health facility, or job-training center," the summary stated.
"Of course, scholars are very concerned because the loss of historical evidence means studying, interpreting, and understanding our state’s heritage becomes difficult or impossible," she said. "But it’s really of concern to all Louisianans who live, die, and pay taxes in this state."