For over three centuries, the archives and records of our local governments have suffered from neglect; loss from fire, flood, theft, and accidental or deliberate destruction; and deterioration from overuse, misuse, and misguided attempts to repair damage. Despite the best efforts of the New Jersey Division of Archives and Records Management (DARM) over the past quarter-century to educate and encourage local officials to better care for their historical records, most local governing bodies simply declined to budget for or commit staff resources to such efforts.
All that began to change in 2003. In that year, the State Legislature established DARM’s Public Archives and Records Infrastructure Support (PARIS) Grants Program, (P.L. 2003, c. 117). PARIS’s mission is simple: to serve as a catalyst in the establishment, enhancement and/or expansion of county and municipal public archives and records management, preservation and storage programs. PARIS has an intentionally broad scope, addressing all aspects of records management, from modern electronic records systems, imaging and technology infrastructure, to the storage of traditional hardcopy government records and the care of county and local archives as old as New Jersey itself.
PARIS both encourages—and enables—local governments to preserve their historical records and make them accessible to a wider public by making preservation of New Jersey’s historical records one of the grant program’s top funding priorities. Finally, for the first time in New Jersey’s history, PARIS provides a dedicated source of funding for local government archives programs.
PARIS Transforming Local Archives and Recordkeeping
PARIS is the nation’s largest grant program for supporting local archives and records management. The State Records Committee announced its first grants May 2005, awarding $25 million to archives and records projects in all of New Jersey’s 21 county governments and 11 of its largest municipalities (with populations over 75,000). PARIS’s second round of grants in May 2006 awarded over $29 million to the 21 counties and to 49 municipalities for an even wider variety of projects, including several supporting intergovernmental shared services.
PARIS grants addressing archives and historical records needs fall into four broad categories: historical records inventories, conservation treatment, preservation imaging and microfilming, and staffing.
Historical records inventories: Many local governments received grants to contract with qualified professionals to inventory and sort historical records, including Atlantic, Burlington, Cumberland, Gloucester, Hudson, Mercer, Ocean and Sussex counties. Comprehensive inventories enable the counties to use complete, accurate, and standardized data in setting future conservation and preservation priorities, and in the process have frequently rediscovered valuable historical records long thought to be lost.
Cumberland County’s inventory yielded one of the most outstanding rediscoveries. Working through a county facility, the inventory team found two old, unlabeled boxes left unnoticed for decades. The boxes contained bound records of the county’s alms house dating to the 1790s, including minutes, financial records, and a complete census of the poor and indigents under the county’s care. The collection will be an invaluable resource to historians and genealogists studying this region and topic. The county later obtained a PARIS grant for conservation treatment and preservation microfilming of the collection.
Woodbridge Township’s inventory located the town’s original minute books—dating back to 1667—in secure custody at Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University. Astonished township officials and staff had no idea that these ancient records still existed, and were surprised to learn that the records predate the town’s formal incorporation by several years. Woodbridge intends to image and microfilm the collection in the future to facilitate easier public access.
Conservation treatment: Several local governments have received PARIS funding for the conservation treatment of appropriate archival records. Monmouth County received funding to conserve deteriorated volumes in the County Archives, including deed books A, B and C, spanning 1667 to 1697 (the oldest in the collection), early minutes of the courts of common pleas quarter sessions, and Miscellaneous Book B, 1780-1816, which contains slave manumission records.
PARIS awarded Somerset County funds to conserve original naturalization records dating back to the early 1800s. The project includes preservation microfilming of the records to allow the originals to be retired from regular use.
Other noteworthy conservation grants to counties include: Cumberland—which obtained PARIS funds to conserve early minutes of the Board of Chosen Freeholders; Bergen—to conserve early ancient deed books damaged by water; Hudson—to treat early bound volumes of maps; Burlington—to conserve their earliest deed books dating from 1780; and Cape May—to treat early volumes from the Surrogate’s Office.
Preservation imaging and microfilming: PARIS has supported multiple preservation imaging and/or microfilming projects that will allow counties to retire delicate original historical records from daily use. Bergen, Cumberland, Hunterdon and Passaic counties all received funding to image their naturalization records. Several counties will image deed records dating to the mid-1800s. Ocean and Passaic counties, among others, are imaging estate and orphans records of the Surrogate’s Office.
Staffing: PARIS requires all 21 counties to seek grant funding to employ at least one dedicated, qualified records management professional, and strongly encourages them to formally establish an Office of Archives and Records Management (OARM). Before PARIS began, some counties already had records managers on staff, and a few had archivists (notably Bergen, Monmouth and Morris). PARIS has added more professionals statewide, with new archivist staff positions created in Cumberland, Hudson, Salem and Union counties. Many more counties will seek full-time archivists in future PARIS grant rounds.
Looking ahead, PARIS will expand further to support educational initiatives and programs that draw on the rich resources in county and municipal archives. Several local governments have already begun planning educational projects to share the discovery and rediscovery of important archival records with citizens and students. Woodbridge Township, Bergen County and Cumberland County have created public exhibitions featuring facsimiles of historical records found during their records inventory projects.
Thanks to the PARIS Grants Program, DARM has already witnessed the beginnings of a transformation in the management of public archives and records in New Jersey’s local governments. Supported by DARM and PARIS, counties, cities and towns have begun to embrace their history as never before, show excitement about maintaining and caring for our precious documentary heritage, and use New Jersey’s “other” state archives to promote greater participation in civic affairs and educate citizens and students about our rich history as a people.
For more information about the PARIS Grants Program and specific grants to New Jersey counties and municipalities, visit http://www.njarchives.org/links/paris.html