Pennsylvania’s County Records Program

News presents briefs about current and forthcoming programs, events, exhibits and activities of historical and cultural institutions in Pennsylvania.

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, as the agent for the Commonwealth’s County Records Committee, has played a significant role in solving some of the records management problems faced by county officials in Pennsylvania. Working through its Division of Archives and Manuscripts (State Archives), the PHMC has assisted the County Records Committee in carrying out its primary responsibility of preparing records retention and disposition schedules for county row offices. Records schedules and disposition procedures developed under the program offer county row officers a means of legally disposing of records in their custody while insuring the preservation of records of permanent administrative or historic value. Implementation of these schedules has provided much needed relief for county officials plagued by the problems of inadequate storage space and the considerable costs involved in the proper maintenance of records.

By the early 1960’s the records management problems faced by officials on all levels of government in the Commonwealth had reached the point where they could no longer be solved by looking for more space in the basements or attics of county, municipal, and state office build­ings. In response to this tremendous proliferation of records, commonly referred to as the “paper explosion,” specific re­sponsibilities were assigned to appropriate agencies in the executive branch of state government for alleviating prob­lems involving the creation, filing, storage and disposal of state records. Records management functions on the state level have been handled primarily through the governor’s Office of Administration and the State Records Center, where records scheduled for eventual destruction or transfer to the State Archives are held. The State Records Center is operated by the PHMC. The State Archives reviews all records retention and disposition schedules as a prerequisite to Executive Board action. No state records under schedule can be destroyed unless the executive director of the PHMC, after recommendation by the archives staff, indicates they are not of permanent or historical value.

The County Records Act of 1963 and the Municipal Records Act of 1968 created special committees to deal with the records management problems faced by local officials. The Local Government Records Committee was established to formulate records disposition schedules and procedures for officials in cities of the third class, boroughs, incorporated towns, townships of the first and second classes, and any municipal authority created by any of these municipalities. Exempted from this program are cities of the first class (Philadelphia), second class (Pittsburgh), and second class A (Scranton), school districts, and authorities established by these units. The committee consists of the secretary of the Department of Community Affairs, William H. Wilcox, chairman; William J. Wewer, executive director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, secretary; the state auditor general, the state treasurer, the attorney general or their representatives; and five other members, representing the following municipal associations: the League of Cities, the State Association of Boroughs, the State Association of Township Commissioners, the State Association of Township Supervisors, and the Municipal Authorities’ Association. The committee has issued a Retention and Disposition Schedule for Records of Pennsylvania Municipalities which covers most local officials except for independent officers and boards, such as the treasurer, justice of the peace, or regional planning commission. Given the same administrative responsibilities which it exercises under the county records program, the PHMC provides for committee expenses, helps prepare and enforce schedules, and offers technical advice to those wishing to implement the schedules.

Though the original County Records Act applied only to the offices of the prothonotary and the clerk of courts, amendments to the act in 1967 (Act No. 300) and 1968 (Act No. 335) specifically authorized the PHMC to serve as the Committee’s agent, gave a precise definition of county records, and broadened its jurisdiction to cover all offices in counties of the second class A and third to eighth class (Philadelphia County and Allegheny County are exempted from this legislation). Under this legislation, county records are defined “as any papers, dockets, books, maps, photographs, or other documentary materials, regardless of phys­ical form or characteristics, made or received in any office of county government in pursuance of law or in connection with transactions of public business in the exercise of its legitimate functions and the discharge of its responsibilities.” Other materials which do not affect the rights of citizens, and which are often created only for convenience in the day-to-day operation of the office, are not included within the definition of county records. Examples of this type of “non-record” are catalogs, magazines, and published ma­terial kept for office use only, shorthand notes and steno­tapes which have been transcribed, and extra copies of documents preserved for reference purposes. Non-records may be destroyed at the discretion of the individual officer.

The County Records Committee consists of thirteen members appointed by the governor for a term of four years. The County Records Act as amended, states that the membership of the Committee shall consist of the Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, or his judicial representative, a representative of the PHMC, an attorney, a member of the general public, and representatives from the nine row offices (a prothonotary, clerk of courts, county commissioner, county controller or auditor, district attorney, county treasurer, sheriff, register of wills, and a re­corder of deeds).

The current Committee consists of the following members:

The Hon. Samuel J. Roberts, justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, chairman; William J. Wewer, execu­tive director of the PHMC, secretary; Raymond Seidel, Norristown, attorney-at-law; Edward F. Bellinger, protho­notary of Tioga County; Joseph Mouyard, Washington County clerk of courts; Donald 8. Hoffman, Lehigh County commissioner; Harold B. Miller, Cumberland County controller; Thomas R. Joyce, Monroe County treasurer; Robert B. Failor, Cumberland County sheriff; Harry R. Burd, Centre County register of wills; Robert E. Casey, Cambria County recorder of deeds; H. H. Arnold, Jr., Clarion, representing the general public.

To date, the County Records Committee has issued schedules for the offices of the prothonotary, clerk of courts, register of wills and clerk of the orphans’ court, re­corder of deeds, treasurer, controller, and county commissioners. The original bulletin for the office of the pro­thonotary has been amended three times and that of the clerk of courts once, as a result of suggestions from county officials, changes in statute, or changes in rules of judicial administration. Still to be developed are schedules for the offices of the sheriff and district attorney. Though the schedules are not mandatory (county records may also be destroyed with approval from the local courts), the county official may legally dispose of records without being held liable in any way if he follows the procedures outlined in the bulletin.

All records disposition actions in the county records program must be approved by the executive director of the PHMC. When the retention period of a scheduled item has expired, officials who wish to participate in the program must submit a records disposal request form for certifica­tion by the Commission’s executive director. On this form the official indicates the type of records action requested, either disposal by destruction, or transfer to a particular his­torical agency; the individual record series titles, their inelusive dates, and the quantity involved; whether or not they have been microfilmed, and in what form. The archives staff reviews each form to make sure the action complies with the schedules. Copies of all requests for records dispositions are retained by the State Archives.

The work being done by Andrew Y. Michie III, prothonotary of Montgomery County, provides a good example of the benefits to be derived from participation in the pro­gram. Following the Committee’s guidelines, Michie has microfilmed almost all of his permanently valuable records, both dockets and papers, for the years 1784 through 1959. He has, of course, destroyed non-archival records without filming, and transferred others of historic value to the Montgomery County Historical Society. The 175 years of records, which at one time required 2,750 square feet of floor space, are now contained in five film cabinets occupy­ing 40 square feet, thus resulting in a significant savings in space and money. It is also important to add, that in this case, the total cost of this program was completely paid for by fees earned by the prothonotary’s office.

From Mr. Michie’s experience in Montgomery County, it can be easily seen that microfilming offers a solution to a number of records management problems. Microfilm sys­tems have been developed for storing, retrieving, duplicating, and up-dating the vast amounts of information handled by governmental agencies. Though microfilming was at one time thought of mainly in connection with the storage of large quantities of inactive records, more sophisticated systems have enabled this medium to be used as a means of retrieving and controlling current information.

The use of microforms could solve space problems per­manently, since it is estimated that microfilm can save up to 98% of the space that original documents would occupy. This reduction of record bulk would greatly reduce the need for expensive filing equipment, provide space for other uses, and offer an opportunity for staff reduction. Though these advantages apply to roll microfilm, which is the simplest and cheapest form of microforms, systems employing aperture cards or microfiche offer additional benefits in speed of information retrieval and ease of filing amendments to the records.

Microfilming provides a relatively inexpensive way of pre­serving both active and inactive records of permanent value which are found to be deteriorating because of constant use or poor storage conditions. The microfilming of valuable records and documents also makes possible the storage of a security copy at a safe distance from the office copy. Should some disaster befall the court house, a copy could be easily and quickly reproduced.

This program has been responsible not only for the de­struction and microfilming of many records, but has also facilitated the transfer of historically valuable records to the State Archives, local historical societies, and other responsible county or regional depositories approved by the PHMC. Examples of the types of series transferred include:

Court records of Yohogania County, Virginia, 1776-81, and Negro Register, 1782-1851, transferred from re­corder of deeds, Washington County, to Historical collections, Library, Washington and Jefferson College, Washington, Pennsylvania.

Tavern licenses and bonds, hotel and bottlers licenses, oaths of office, constables bonds and returns, 1808-1922, transferred from clerk of courts, Adams County, to Adams County Historical Society, Gettysburg.

Coroner’s views and inquisitions, 1710-1950, criminal dockets, 1810-1932, dental register, 1883, stallion reg­ister, 1886, transferred from clerk of courts, Bucks County, to Bucks County Historical Society.

Prison discharges, 187 4-1945, treasurer’s bonds, 1758-1854, bail bonds, 1762-1867, transferred from clerk of courts, Chester County, to Chester County Historical Society.

Orphans’ court minutes, 1753-57, 1764-70, 1775-85, slave register, 1780-88, road viewers, 1827-49, and militia rolls, 1866-84, 1890-1901, transferred from the office of the prothonotary, Lancaster County, to Lancaster County Historical Society, Lancaster.

Inventory and appraisal dockets, marriage licenses, and Orphans’ Court dockets, 1800-1959, transferred from register of wills and clerk of the Orphans’ Court, Centre County, to the Centre County Library and Historical Museum.

County historical societies in Adams, Bucks, Chester, Lancaster, and Montgomery counties have accessioned significant quantities of historical records from their local court houses within the framework of the program. The Bucks County Historical Society alone has received approximately 1,000 cubic feet of records, becoming, in effect, a county archives. The Centre County Library and Historical Mu­seum, the Washington and Jefferson College library, and the State Archives, are other repositories which have acces­sioned county archival materials.

Since the issuance of the first records retention and disposition schedule by the County Records Committee in 1967, the PHMC has received 267 records disposal certifica­tion requests from row officers in twenty-three counties. The Commission has authorized the disposition of 8,071 cubic feet of county records, of which 2,733 cubic feet has been certified for transfer to local historical repositories, while 5,338 cubic feet has been certified for destruction. According to the records disposal certification requests, 4,696 cubic feet of records have been microfilmed in con­formance with the Committee’s guidelines. (These statistics were compiled from records certification requests only and would not indicate situations where a row officer is micro­filming records according to the schedule, but is waiting for the completion of the filming before submitting a disposition request.) The State Archives has also received numerous telephone and mail requests for retention schedules and technical information from officials in counties other than those twenty-three which have submitted disposal requests.

The basic work of the County Records Committee is almost completed as most county offices are now covered by a Records Retention and Disposition Schedule. Though this work has resulted in the establishment of an effective records management program for county offices, the success of the program depends on the extent to which it is utilized by row officers and county archivists. Since the schedules are permissive in character, no county officer is required to use them, nor is he obliged to dispose of every record which a schedule permits to be destroyed. However, the schedules and bulletins provide definite information and procedures to guide and assist local officials in the disposition of non-current records. Should questions arise concerning the im­plementation or interpretation of the schedules, members of the archives staff can supply advice in connection with these problems.

Increased participation in the county records program will greatly aid the PHMC in carrying out its responsibility of preserving the permanently valuable records of the Commonwealth. Since each records disposal certification request is checked by members of the Archives staff, it gives the Commission the opportunity to advise local historical societies of records which they might wish to add to their collections. If there is no active society able to preserve these records, then arrangements could be made to transfer them to the State Archives. However, the Commission’s first ob­jective is to see that records of a particular local historic value are preserved in the immediate area by a county his­torical society or college archives.

County Records Bulletins, containing the retention and disposition schedules, and a complete explanation of the program and disposition procedures, are issued for the County Records Committee by the PHMC. Records sched­ules are also printed in the Pennsylvania Bulletin. Schedules for clerks of courts (schedule no. 2) and recorders of deeds (schedule no. 4) have been published in 2 Pa. B. 944-947. Revised schedules for prothonotaries (schedule no. 1) and registers of wills and clerks of orphans’ courts (schedule no. 3) have been published in 3 Pa. 8. 2151-2152 and 4 Pa. B. 865 respectively. A combined schedule for county com­missioners, controllers, and treasurers (schedule no. 5). which revises an earlier schedule issued for county com­missioners only, appears in 5 Pa. B. 45-47.

Further information regarding the County Records Pro­gram may be obtained by writing the Commission’s Division of Archives and Manuscripts (Box 1026, Harrisburg 17120).


Frank M. Suran is associate archivist in the Division of Archives and Manuscripts (State Archives), PHMC.