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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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Bulletproof Local Archives

Several weeks ago, a guy named Travers who lives just off Route 43 in Rensselaer County (just across the Hudson River from Downtown Albany) was moving some things around in the attic of his house. He came across two old books with pages filled with a beautiful old handwriting. He had just found the official records of what is now the City of Rensselaer and two adjacent townships covering the years 1796 to 1802. The records include meeting minutes, tax records, ordinances and a treasure trove of genealogical information about local families. They had been lost since at least the 1840s. The records, which have been turned over to local officials, may have been in the house when the Travers family bought it generations ago.

Important local records and documents go missing or turn up more than you may think. I experienced such a moment myself, on a small scale. In 1998, on staff at North Hempstead Town Hall, I was putting boxes on a shelf in a storage room. Trying to figure out why some of the boxes weren’t sitting straight, I found an old leather portfolio. Inside were original detailed blueprints, with notations, for all of the land owned by the town government at the time of the original county tax assessments in 1938. Here were beaches, docks, waterfront, even some parkland that the town apparently still technically owned, but which had been leased away, forgotten or otherwise lost to most residents. It’s one of the reasons that retaining or reopening access to local natural resources has been an ongoing theme of this column and an important personal objective. The blueprints were found two years after there had supposedly been a room-by-room search for old records that might be lying around the building. It symbolized a breakdown of institutional and public memory.

Lost old records can have implications you don’t see coming. Not long before the portfolio incident, North Hempstead nearly lost a six-figure state grant to refurbish a popular park because documentation showing clear title to the land was missing. Some of the few thousand planning maps that may be needed in some types of zoning decisions or title searches are no longer in the County Clerk’s office. Leaking pipes destroyed a hundred years worth of school records at a local district. Stuff happens. Earlier this year, the six-story building holding the archives of Cologne, Germany suddenly collapsed. Days later, an earthquake wrecked the Italian national archives at Abruzzo. Exactly which irreplaceable documents and records have been destroyed is still being determined.

The catastrophes have opened the eyes of municipal clerks and archivists around the world to the need to digitize everything, backup everything and, most importantly, to have a workable, tested emergency plan for local records that goes beyond most standard disaster management plans.

Many local districts and municipalities think they’re covered by paying to store backups of some records at private storage facilities, such as Iron Mountain. It’s not nearly enough. It is essential that some other locally-controlled backup operation be in place. Otherwise, important government functions may stop until off-site records are retrieved, restored and put back in working order. Look at how long it takes for some of our local governments to update their simple web sites; how long will it take them to reconstitute their tax or finance operations?

Even scarier, in the past few years, Iron Mountain has been involved in a series of incidents involving lost and misplaced record tapes.

One way to get control of records is to, in effect, give up control. Every Long Island government needs a crash program to digitize everything on a variety of platforms and formats, and to protect the data partly by putting it all online, a dispersed “data cloud” that can resist calamity.

It would be a great opportunity for every clerk in the county to join forces and network their systems together, so that costs are shared and duplication avoided. That would require a change in the mindset of some local officials, who often think, “If functions can be consolidated, then I may be expendable.”

Well, what’s in some of these offices is not expendable, and it’s time for a top-to-bottom review of what has to happen in case of the worst case.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. He lives in New Hyde Park.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net