Times Leader Arts & Entertainment

Two counties proud of records centers

October 4, 1998

Times Leader Staff Writer

York County's records storage facility, the fourth floor of the courthouse, was neither neat nor secure when Mary Walter took over as archivist in the late 1980s.

It also had some unwanted visitors.

One day among the records, she said, "I found this perfectly preserved bird skeleton."

These days Walter can afford to laugh at the incident. As archivist for York County, she now presides over a state-of-the-art county records center visited by more than 1,000 researchers a year.

"Probably genealogists are the heaviest users," she said, though many deed researchers, lawyers, historians and other residents use the facility. A former juvenile detention home on Pleasant Acres Road in the city of York, it opened two years ago after extensive remodeling. It is climate-controlled, with sprinklers and security.

Visitors check in at the front desk and are helped by a staff member to find what they need in paper records or microfilms and get settled in the research room, where they may examine records dating back to the 18th century.

York County is not the only Pennsylvania county in recent years to centralize its records and make them readily available to the public for research purposes.

In Chester County, the county and the Chester County Historical Society joined forces in the 1980s to staff and maintain a centralized, public-access records center on Westtown Road.

"I think the facilities are some of the nicest you'll run into," said Jeff Rollison, director of archives and records services.

His facility also is temperature- and humidity-controlled and offers staff to help the public, and research rooms with microfilm readers and computers.

"We've seen about 2,000 individuals a year come in to use the records, and maybe another 1,000 requests," said Rollison.

In York County, the center is staffed by four full-time government employees and four part-time positions, funded by the Senior Community Service Employment Program, according to information from the Pennsylvania Archives. In Chester County, the county and the historical society provide funding and staff. Rollison said the facility has seven employees.

Both records offices charge users only the actual cost of copying documents.

Luzerne County's records system is nowhere near the level of usability known in York and Chester counties, though there has been promising movement this year. The county's records had been divided among the courthouse sub-basement, which is prone to flooding, and several other buildings, but recently were collected in the Thomas C. Thomas building.

Local genealogists say they hope Luzerne County officials will soon take the next step and turn the Thomas building into a records center that is staffed and open to the public for research purposes. As things stand, the researcher must still figure out which courthouse office would be in charge of the records he or she wants, make a request and return a day or more later to see the records that have been brought over to the courthouse by county workers.

"The transportation alone back and forth is going to cause damage," said Tammy Lamb, president of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Genealogical Society. "Then you're trusting them to get them back in the correct position."

If there is a key to developing a good records center, Walter and Rollison agree, it is commitment from the very top levels of county government.

"Without the full support of the (county) commissioners, nothing would have happened," said York County's Walter. In Chester County, said Rollison, the county commissioners committed themselves to a records center and approached the historical society, which joined in the project.

Meanwhile, Lamb and other researchers are hopeful that the recent state law ordering counties to set up records management programs and funding from the $2 fee imposed on documents filed in county recorder of deeds offices will help bring a new records and research facility to Luzerne County.

Searching: Floridian Ruth Sick is looking for Northeastern Pennsylvania descendants of the PAZZAGLIA family. Members Alfredo, Guglilmina, Mathilde, Mattie and Ortensia came to America many years ago from the Italian village of Seravalle di Carda/Cagli/Pesaro.

Contact her after Oct. 16 at 526 A-2 Shady Pine Way, West Palm Beach, Fla. 33415. Phone (561) 966-7831. E-mail at nonnaruth@aol.com/

News notes: With all the searching of history that genealogists do, it's easy for them to forget that someday their own lives might be the object of somebody's family research.

Genealogist James Haldeman in The Anthracite History Journal puts it succinctly. "Just think how lucky we would all be if every generation made accurate records of its family members and their accomplishments. So take a few minutes out and help bring the past alive today for yourself and future generations."

  • A debate is raging within the federal government over how to deal with the mushrooming collection of computer records.

    Should computer files be deleted as long as paper copies exist? How can computer records be preserved if future changes in computer technology make them irretrievable? Should purging of records be put on hold until these questions are answered? Should the whole subject be ignored until the "Year 2000 Problem" is solved?

  • Have you solved some tough genealogical problems in your research? Do you have some tips you'd like to share with others? Would you like to report a success story? Drop me a line here at the paper. I'll get in touch with you and help you bring the benefits of your experience to others.

    © 1998 The Times Leader

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