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Local governments to form records management working group

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Lewis and Clark County Board of County Commissioners Chairman Jim McCormick was doing some research in a public building recently when he stumbled across a county ledger book from 1889 "up on a roller rack," he said.

He pulled it down and opened it on the table to an entry from November 1889, in which the governor of 10-day-old Montana, Joseph K. Toole, requested space in the county courthouse, the one still used today, for a state Legislature to meet. 

The ledger entry noted the request was approved but the transaction could not be immediately completed as nobody working for the newly minted state at the time was authorized to conduct business with the county.

"It was fascinating to read that, handwritten, in the ledger, and those records absolutely have to be protected," McCormick said during a county commission meeting earlier this month.

The commissioners approved the formation of a records management and storage working group April 12. The group will consist of representatives from the county and cities of Helena and East Helena and will attempt to help the local governments deal with a glut of historical documents in the attics, crawlspaces and trolley depots across the county.

"That will be part of the discussion that this will include, and it's not just Lewis and Clark County, but also city of Helena, city of East Helena," McCormick said.

He said the undertaking, backed by a $1 million commitment from the county last year, will help streamline the day-to-day document retention processes required by statute and preserve the "historic documents that we want to retain forever."

The county previously conducted a survey of its documents and storage practices in 2007. The survey, led by a professional archivist, determined the county was in possession of more than 3,800 linear feet of documents accrued between 1865 and 2007.

The study also noted where records were being stored across the county and how that retention was being handled. The study found a number of inadequacies.

Most of the items were previously stored in the Power Block in downtown Helena, which the county's Heritage Preservation Officer Pam Attardo said was far from ideal, but at least made for a single repository.

Following the sale of the building to Helena nonprofit Student Assistance Foundation in December, the county had to relocate the items it had stored there.

The 19th-century records, deeds and maps were moved to the attic of the Law and Justice Center and a dilapidated building within the Montana Surplus Property and Recycling Facility near the county fairgrounds. Many old artifacts, such as the 112-year-old Helena Trolley No. 3 and massive cast iron crucibles recovered from the old Caird Engineering foundry, are also being kept at the state property.

A Helena city trolley from 1909

A Helena city trolley from 1909 sits in a Lewis and Clark County storage facility recently.

Still other documents, such as aerial photographs and court records, are stuffed in the county courthouse attic.

The state surplus building previously served as the maintenance garage for the Department of Transportation's motor pool. Portions of the building are literally falling down. Attardo keeps a large piece of cardboard over an open doorway to an area of the building where the ceiling recently collapsed, to keep pigeons out.

"I just think this is extremely important. I was surprised at the condition of some of the records we have," County Commissioner Tom Rolfe said. "We have a lot of records that need to be protected and microfilmed or whatever needs to be done to preserve those records for the future."

While preservation efforts will likely focus around digitizing the documents, Attardo said the first step of the working group will be to update the more than 14-year-old data the county is currently working with.

"It starts with simply figuring out what people have in their offices," Attardo said, only half joking.

The group will look to contract with another professional archivist to update the county's data.

Before the archival work can begin, the county needs to know what it has, and Lewis and Clark County Chief Administrative Officer Roger Baltz said, "I think it's fair to say that for this group, the logical path forward is going to be looking at updating that information, which is now over 14 years old."

What began as a county initiative quickly morphed into a more regional effort with the inclusion of Helena and East Helena.

"I'm looking forward to moving forward," County Commissioner Andy Hunthausen said. "I'm glad the city of East Helena and the city of Helena are partnering with us to study the issue because if we can do something together, and I know it's an if, but if we can, that is better for the public that we all serve."

According to Baltz, the MOU has already been reviewed and approved by Helena and East Helena.

While digitizing these documents is a good place to start, Attardo said preservation of the physical items should be the priority. With that comes substantial costs.

The city of Butte floated an approximately $7 million bond in 2007 to build the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives, a two-story vault that houses its documents and artifacts.

"It's totally amazing from a geeky archivist perspective," Attardo previously told the Independent Record. "They're like the top of the mountain."

There are numerous national grants the county could compete for to help offset the cost of digitizing and archiving, but Attardo said the grants usually require some sort of plan for preserving the items once digitized, which the county does not currently have.

While the Montana Historical Society's state museum may seem like an obvious landing spot, it is currently in the midst of an expansion and renovation as it needed more space for its own items.

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Local Government Reporter

Nolan Lister is a reporter at the Helena Independent Record with an emphasis on local government and crime.

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