I'm driving to a new client today, and will pass right by my very first clients, nearly ten years ago. They have an amazing story, and I've been meaning to tell it for a while. What they've done, and the possibilities for other institutions like them, is a large part of why I'm so passionate about preservation.
When I first met the folks from the Lavaca County Clerk's office, they had plenty of motivation and a big problem on their hands. There were records stored all over their historic courthouse in poor conditions. The biggest shock came a few days into my visit. The night before they told me "Wear jeans tomorrow." I've since learned that "wear jeans" is code for "this is pretty scary." The clients drove me out of town to a field with an old boxcar sitting in it. The boxcar was filled with historic records that had been sitting there for years and years. This combination of poor environmental control, pest problems and lack of intellectual control put these records at grave risk of being lost forever.
I went home after my site visit, wrote a report recommending improvements in storage conditions and crossed my fingers hoping for the best.
What happened was beyond my wildest dreams. Elizabeth Kouba, the Lavaca County Clerk, and Brenda Lincke Fisseler, chair of the Lavaca County Records Retention Volunteers dove in to the project. Liz and Brenda persuaded the county commissioner's court to rent space to store the documents in the boxcar, and volunteers moved them out, and that was just the beginning.
Several years later, the county has renovated an old grocery store for county offices, and much of that is given to the county clerk's office for records storage. The records retention volunteers meet regularly to clean the documents that were in the boxcar, store them in quality folders and boxes, and find the names of their relatives in the material they're cleaning. In the past 10 years, the records of Lavaca County have gone from highly endangered to extremely well cared for. It was a great lesson to me in how a committed community can make a real difference in how their history is preserved, and I've been lucky enough to present several trainings and generally offer advice and answer questions along the way.
Now, on the rare times that I find myself questioning if my work is doing any good in the world, I think about Liz, Brenda, all of the lovely volunteers that I've met over the last ten years, and that scary boxcar, and how my contributions helped them map a path from boxcar to records retention center. That's pretty cool, and exactly why I love what I do so much.
(Several years ago, Amigos wrote a PR piece about the project. If you want to read more, you can point your browser here: http://www.amigos.org/preservation/lavaca_case_study.pdf)