While paper might be becoming a thing of the past, it’s often the one thing that remains of our recorded history. And while it was often our sole means of recording that history, paper is among the most difficult media to preserve. To that end, New York City’s painstakingly stacked, filed and boxed New York Supreme Court records, part of an immense collection of official documents dating back as far as 1674, are being moved from the archival homes they’ve occupied for, in some cases, centuries. The New York Times reports on a heroic effort by dedicated archivists to round up the these city records in order to preserve them for posterity and make them more accessible to researchers.
Thousands of boxes of documents are being moved from places like the Surrogate’s Courthouse at 31 Chambers Street in Manhattan, originally known as the Hall of Records, where archived papers and parchments include the names of historic figures like Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr from the days when they were working as lawyers in the city, condemnation records of properties razed to make way for Central Park and the city’s street grid, and immigration documents of Europeans who sought to become citizens of the United States. Many are older than the Declaration of Independence.
There are files from cases like Lemmon v. New York involving slaves brought across state lines. There are Aaron Burr’s divorce records (Burr was a defendant in the divorce case brought by his younger, wealthier wife who had to prove that he had been unfaithful in order to be able to end the marriage).
The vast trove of documents, once part of of the solemnly-monikered Division of Ancient Records, have known the company of few save the staff members who tend to them. The occasional researchers, historians or genealogists that dare brave the dusty archives might find pages that have been “tattered over the centuries and gnawed by rodents, particularly those that had been sealed with wheat paste.”
To halt this inevitable deterioration, 1,100 boxes of records, close to 900 unboxed volumes and about 500 rolls of microfilm will soon be heading to new homes at the New York State Archives in Albany and the city’s Department of Records. State archivists are busily working to pack the precious papers, some of which are caked with 100-year-old sooty dust.
Says Milton A. Tingling, the Manhattan county clerk, “This whole place, when you come in — even if you’re not interested in history — you walk out with your eyes wide open. This is the history of New York State. It belongs to everyone.”
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