Johnson County Archives Division marks 20th year of preserving historical records

Teresa Anderson enjoys a Johnson County Government job that focuses on organization, order, and history.

She’s the manager of the Johnson County Archives and Records Management Division, which is quietly marking its 20th anniversary in 2012. The division is part of the Department of Records and Tax Administration (RTA).

The department’s responsibilities include being the caretaker of an estimated 51 million pages of historical documents from county government and court systems in more than 22,000 boxes along with 5,402 ledgers and scores of old township maps. They include hand-written public records and tax rolls dating back to the founding of Johnson County 157 years ago.

“We make history every day in the Archives Division,” John Bartolac, director of RTA, said. “The process of preserving and archiving our county records shows us where we have been and where we are now in relation to our development and growth, our political and business beliefs and information about those who lived here before us and who lives with us now. We preserve our past records and maintain the current ones for future generations.”

The division is a mere toddler in comparison to the history it stores. The county’s Archives and Records Management program was established in 1990 under a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. The program became a county division with staff two years later.

For most of its existence, archives was located in the lower level of the Johnson County Administration Building in downtown Olathe, but relocated to the county’s Operations Center, 19310 West 159th Street, Olathe, when that facility opened in 2007. The operation of the Archives Division was moved from the Facilities Management Department to RTA at the start of 2010.

It’s a small division with a huge inventory; staff by only  four employees – Anderson, Mallory Hodge and Dixie Mitchell, both archivist technicians; and GIS Technician Steven Tolman.

The archives facility serves two main purposes for Johnson County. It provides for the efficient, effective, and economical managements of public records. That includes documents that are historically important or no longer actively needed by courts or county departments, but must be legally maintained until state or federal laws permit their disposal.

Its secondary role is archival administration; assessing the historical significance of documents created by county government and ensuring permanent preservation of the county’s historical papers. At the same time, the department provides a system to keep track of its massive inventory for retention by other county departments, courts, and public requests.

Another important task for the staff is to decide what is required to be retained. The facility receives about 3,000 boxes each year for safekeeping. Each box holds an average of 2,250 pages of documents.  The county follows the state’s retention schedule to determine how long documents are kept.

“It’s almost a steady flow now,” Anderson said, explaining that about the number of boxes being received and disposed is about the same each year. “It’s pretty even-steven.”
For the past two years, the division has recycled much of the materials earmarked for disposal. That’s more than 2,500 boxes and 30 tons of paper, resulting in total savings of approximately $6,450.

It has coroner records, beginning in 1888; journals of the Board of County Commissioners that date back to 1857 when county government was organized on September 7 of that year; records of inventory and appraisement; road petitions; and school records, including common school examinations, truancy records, teacher examinations, and record of certificates granted.

The department has some records signed by the Rev. Thomas Johnson, a Methodist minister who, in 1829, established a mission in Fairway among the Shawnee Indians. The county was named after him when it was created on August 25, 1855, as one of the first 33 counties in Kansas, then only a territory.

The records reflect times when horse and chicken stealing were major crimes; when James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok was a constable and enforcing law and order in Monticello Township; when an acre of land generally sold for $5 or less; when divorce papers often detailed marital affairs as reasons for the actions, including pictures of the alleged lovers as part of the court proceedings; and when segregated schools existed in Johnson County.

Most visitors who have found their way to the Archives Division have looked for information in hopes of tracing family ancestors through birth, death, and marriage records, but anyone can take a look at the historic inventory for whatever reason.

The staff delights in the stories that have to be coaxed and interpreted from faded documents full of numbers and history about Johnson County and former generations of citizens.

A few “ghost hunters” have researched documents to try the find the possible names and backgrounds of apparitions in their homes.

Some requests have changed family history by indicating farms were not actually owned, but sharecropped by previous generations, and that some members in the family history were married more times than what was previously known.

“It fills a lot of gaps in family trees,” Mitchell said.

Although a lot of the information is accessible online, the original records have personal value to citizens asking for research of old files involving past family members.

“People like to hold the documents and look at them,” Hodge said.

Tolman agreed.

“When they see their great-grandfather’s signature, it means so-much to them,” he added.

To the casual visitor, the archives are more like the attic of Johnson County Government piled high with boxes of papers and ledgers filled with an elegant script that goes back to the 19th century.

A first visit to the Archives and Records Management Division gives one the chance to confirm and call into question all the stereotypes. The county collection includes lots and lots of old books – none of them noticeably worm-eaten, but many with vellum pages and gilded leather bindings. There are more than 22,000 file boxes filled with a wide variety of papers and records.

Despite traditional clichés, the archives are well-lit, have no cobwebs, and lack the expected musty odor. The main collection room is kept at a constant temperature to protect the documents from being damaged by too much heat, humidity, or other natural perils in storing aging papers, books, and other documents for future use.

The facility also has a limited number of historic photographs that were received as part of the public files along with a handful of old newspapers detailing historic events, such as the attack on Pearl Harbor and the celebration of V-E Day, the abdication of King Edward VII, and the disappearance of Kansas native and famed aviator Ameila Earhart.

In showcasing what the archives collection has to offer, Anderson walks concrete floors between the steel racks of 25 movable shelves under dim fluorescent lighting. The shelves, which measure about 90 feet in length and approximately 14 feet in height, double the storage capacity at the facility by eliminating the need for a pathway between shelves for accessibility and making it possible to store a lot of items in limited space. The system has an overall capacity to store roughly 30,000 boxes.

The staff spends a lot of their days processing the voluminous materials that the division receives and manages. It’s not a simple filing job. It’s a massive undertaking. The bulk of the collections have been stored into accessible files and recorded on a comprehensive computer database maintained and constantly updated.

“We have an awesome system and can find anything,” Anderson added.

Most of the archived materials have been placed in acid-free boxes and folders. Each box has its own tracking number to note its location for future reference through a master inventory list.

Many of the fragile documents are encapsulated to preserve them and ensure future longevity. The process protects the materials, but allows for their safe removal, if needed, since the edges of the protective covering are only sealed by an ultrasonic weld.

Office hours are 8 a.m. through 5 p.m. with research services from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and by calling the main office number at (913) 715-0400 or by email. There is no charge for services, but each request is limited to 30 minutes or so of staff time to conduct “reasonable research” for specific information. Fees are charged for copying any materials in the archives collection.

The division provides access to many of its old records through the website http://archives.jocogov.org.

“We have a duty to preserve our records, but the staff that performs archival duties does so with respect for the history these records hold,” Bartolac said. “After 20 years, we still provide the same due diligence by storing the records in an organized fashion for easy access and retrieval, by consistently following retention and destruction schedules, and by providing quality, helpful service to our customers. We are proud to be part of preserving the history of Johnson County.”

Anderson agreed.

“Archives assists Johnson County Government in its openness and helps in the transparency of our government,” she said with a smile. “We are, indeed, an open book.”

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