Response to Kevin Cherry’s Dec. 19, 2013 Letter to the Editor

Red Herring's Abound.

Red Herring’s Abound.

On December 19, 2013, Kevin Cherry (Deputy Secretary, Director, Office of Archives and History, N.C. Department of Cultural Resources) posted a letter to the editor to the Franklin Times (the first news outlet to break the story of the unfortunate destruction of a trove of records recently discovered in the Franklin County Courthouse basement.)

A number of readers and commenters have asked me to comment on this letter. While I feel as if I’ve thoroughly covered nearly every angle of this thing, and while I feel that Mr. Cherry’s letter to the Times is very similar to the explanations I received from Sarah Koonts and responded to this this post (New Developments) – people are asking and so I feel compelled to respond (even if it is redundant.)

You can see the original letter from Mr. Cherry here at the NC Archives blog.

Below I respond to Mr. Cherry’s letter inline.

Dear Editor:

In response to your Dec. 12, 2013, article entitled “County Burns Boxes of Historic Records,” the State Archives of North Carolina would like the opportunity to reflect on this chain of events.

The State Archives of N.C. has been preserving North Carolina history for more than 110 years…

…By law, records retention schedules are written and approved by the State Archives and the creating agency.  These schedules outline the minimum retention period for all public records and establish an appropriate disposition.”

I have no issue with anything Mr. Cherry has to say in his introductory paragraphs.

“In August 2013, the Division of Archives and Records was notified by Franklin County representatives that government records from dating from 1880s through 1969…”

Actually, some of the books and documents went back to the 1840’s, at least – as is shown by this photograph: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=556194531135675&set=a.556194484469013.1073741838.366834443405019&type=3&theate”r

“…had been stored in the courthouse basement where a leaking air conditioner caused water damage to some of the records and exacerbated mold growth in the room. At the request of county officials, Division staff visited the Franklin County Courthouse Aug. 21, 2013, to assess and appraise the records stored in the basement.”

There is some dispute about the timeline here. According to Diane Taylor Torrent, she contacted the NC Archives around May or June of 2013, and in early August the NC Archives sent a representative to “investigate”.

See timeline blog entry here for more precise clarification.

“Based on an inventory submitted to our office by Patricia Burnette Chastain, the Clerk of Superior Court,…”

The referenced inventory was prepared by Diane Taylor Torrent of the Franklin County Historical Society. By her own admission, it was hastily prepared, incomplete, and inadequate to describing what materials remained in the basement. She states that she was not given enough time or access to the basement in order to provide a comprehensive inventory. Therefore, any assessment of what was actually in the basement cannot be surmised by the inventory referenced by Mr. Cherry.

“…it was determined that a majority of the documents in the basement were financial records that were decades past the recommended period of retention. The remaining records fell under the custodianship of several local county offices including the County Manager, the Register of Deeds, and the Clerk of Superior Court…”

Mr. Cherry’s point here is that the records were very old, and could have been disposed of years ago. What he does not say is that someone chose (decades ago) to save these records, and to add to them from the collections of other county agencies. While his statement that the documents “were decades past the recommended period of retention” is perfectly accurate, what he doesn’t address is the question of just because something can legally be destroyed, should it be destroyed? Should they be destroyed if there are citizens who find value in them, and are willing, able, and ready to preserve them, protect them, and make them appropriately available for the benefit of historical research?

“…A substantial quantity of the remaining records contained confidential information, including personally identifiable and medical information…”

This is a red herring. Furthermore, now that the records have been destroyed, it cannot be proved. I’ll say this; whatever personally identifiable information was contained in those documents, it was likely so antique as to be useless to identity thief’s, useless to snoops or blackmailer’s, but absolutely priceless to historians.

“..Appraisal of these records was done using established professional standards within the state and the archival field across the country.  We consulted established and approved retention schedules and involved the local government offices for their input on any potential long-term value of the records.

Many of the records in question have been eligible for destruction since the 1960s and have routinely been destroyed in other counties in the state in accordance with the schedule.  Many of them are duplicates, confidential, drafts, or duplicated in another records series that has been saved…”

This is where it gets interesting. Mr. Cherry states that many of the documents were “duplicates, confidential, drafts, or duplicated in another records series”. However, we know that the investigators from NC Archives spent very little time in the basement (so much for “established professional standards”.) They did not do a comprehensive review of the many thousands of documents in that room. They spent a few hours poking around in a dimly lit, musty basement, and then they determined there was nothing of value there? It took the Franklin County Historical Society weeks to begin the process of investigating and organizing these materials. They barely scratched the surface before their work was halted. Mr. Cherry wants us to take his word for the fact that these materials were worthless? How does he know? No one knows because no one was given (or took) the opportunity to do a detailed investigation.

“…The local governmental agencies make the final decision on whether records not retained by the State Archives are retained locally or destroyed…”

Indeed. And yet, in a 10/29/2013 letter to Patricia B. Chastain, Franklin County Clerk of Superior Court, Louisburg, N.C., Rebecca McGee-Langford, Assistant State Records Administrator, Government Records Section Manager, North Carolina State Archives, states the following; “In conclusion, we urge county officials to take immediate action to destroy these records. No other disposition is advised, including donation of the records to a non-government entity for any reason.”

That’s awfully strong language. Especially coming on a State of North Carolina letterhead bearing Governor Pat McCrory’s name. If I were the Clerk of Court and I received such strongly worded instructions, I wouldn’t interpret it as a suggestion. Looks like a mandate to me.

“…Based on information given to our office, we verified the appropriate retention period for all records on the list provided.  If records are identified as archival on a schedule that means they fit the State Archives’ collecting policies and need to be transferred to us for permanent retention or maintained permanently by the custodial government office.

If the records are not identified as archival, once retention is reached, the local agency may elect to destroy them, as was the case in Franklin County.  The review and appraisal process for the records in question was done after many consultations among the involved parties, including the State Archives, Administrative Office of the Courts, and Franklin County officials…”

No issue here, except that they could not have accurately identified all the potentially “archival” records, because they were working from an incomplete inventory.

“…The Archives currently has a substantial collection of permanently valuable Franklin County records that are available for public access, including 101 volumes, 176 fibredex boxes and 1,066 microfilm reels of records. In addition, during our visit the Archives took possession of 15 boxes of civil and criminal case files, 4 volumes of justice dockets, Criminal Court (1960s), and 1 volume of Records of Magistrates (1880s). Since these records were exposed to active mold we are taking every precaution recommended prior to reformatting these materials…”

It’s interesting that they found value in the documents that the Historical Society had just begun salvaging from the basement. These materials represent a small fraction of the whole cache that remained in the basement. It’s such an arbitrary determination these folks seem to have made. They saw value in the docs collected in clean, pretty white boxes, maintained in a clean, well-lit room. Yet they determined that the documents in the musty old basement had no value. THE DOCUMENTS THEY TOOK CAME FROM THE SAME BASEMENT!!!!

“Not every piece of paper can be saved from every government office in North Carolina without creating an undue burden on government offices and taxpayers.  That is the nature of records management – to work under professional standards with records creators to determine overarching series of records that document the actions of governments protect the legal rights of citizens, and inform the history of our state.”

Yes. Of course. That’s why the Franklin County Historical Society was raising funds and organizing community support to assist with salvaging, cleaning, and preserving these materials at their own expense. They asked nothing of the NC Archives except to alert them to the existence of the material. And yet the Archives has chosen to hide behind the “excuse” of “undue burden on government offices and taxpayers”. There was no burden. This was always a grassroots effort.

If the documents were redundant and useless, there was no harm that could have come from retaining them and allowing the Heritage Society to play with them at their own expense.

If the documents were unique (we’ll never know) a lot of new information could have been gleaned.

And the end of the day, I want to know two things:
– Why Rebecca McGee-Langford used such strong language in her “advice” to Franklin County Clerk of Court, Patricia Chastain, re; the instruction to take “immediate action to destroy” the documents – and especially not to allow a “non-government entity for any reason” access to them. (Read; the Historical Society.)

– Why the destruction was carried out after business hours, with no notification to the interested parties. Who ordered it. Who paid for it. Was anyone outside county government involved in the decision.

This concludes my response to Mr. Cherry’s letter.

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