Hands-On History features stories that focus on history in practice at museums and historic sites throughout Pennsylvania.

For three years, from 2008 through part of 2011, the archival staff of the Pennsylvania State Archives in Harrisburg, administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC), has been involved in an initiative to improve the management of the Commonwealth’s historical records maintained by its sixty-seven county governments. Known as the Itinerant Archivist Project, the program strengthened archival infrastructure and expanded the range of protected and accessible records documenting the Commonwealth’s collective past.

Colonial Pennsylvania inherited the traditional English local government forms in place during the Tudor and Stuart periods and brought to America by early English settlers. The Commonwealth was first divided into the three counties of Philadelphia, Bucks, and Chester in 1682 to provide citizens with local court systems and a means for the assessment and maintenance of the records of property. Today a variety of other functions are performed by county governments for the welfare of citizens. Pennsylvania’s beautiful courthouses were designed as places for the disposition of justice and for the safekeeping of documents which provided proof that justice had been dispensed. These grand edifices bespoke the majesty of law and the security of documents confirming and safeguarding citizens’ rights. One did not need to be party to a courtroom dispute to visit the courthouse as it housed many offices to serve the people. Here are found as natural products of local government the records of births, deaths, marriages, property ownership, settlement of estates, taxes, voting, crime and punishment, trials and verdicts of the insane and destitute, of fires and floods, of taverns and roads, in short the basic records of a people — past, present, and future.

As beautiful as are the buildings and most public rooms, courthouses often have basements and attics that are not so attractive, and it is here that older records are frequently stored to make room for newer documents. After these undesirable spots are filled even more inadequate accommodations are generally found elsewhere. The oldest records with the most historical interest and value are often at risk of deterioration or destruction and many are completely inaccessible to the public. This problem is not unique to Pennsylvania. America in general has been slow to acknowledge the importance of its archival heritage. Document preservation is expensive and few county governments are able to afford it. In the past the Pennsylvania State Archives has tried a variety of ways to make government officials aware of the situation, including a modest grants program and plenty of advice and encouragement, but they only chipped away at the problem. What was needed was a commitment in the form of hands-on assistance which a small staff with limited resources could not provide. It was decided to try a different tack. The concept was to hire an itinerant archivist to work full-time for up to a period of two months in each county to determine if this immersion technique would yield a real and self-sustaining improvement in the way counties maintained their records.

Consequently, in response to an application in 2007, the State Archives received a two-year grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) to hire a traveling or itinerant archivist for the project. Since it would not be possible to provide services to all sixty-seven counties, two geographical areas were selected, the southwestern corner of the Commonwealth for the first year of the project and several northeastern counties for the second. The Archives expected to be able to work with six counties each year by which time the feasibility of this method would be proven or not. As it turned out, the applications of fifteen counties were accepted in the first two years.

The success of the project hinged upon the quality of the itinerant archivist. The successful applicant, Heather L. Heckman of Tamaqua, Schuylkill County, possessed exceptionally strong credentials and proved to be the ideal candidate for the position. Two of the Archives staff responsible for working with local governments, Susan T. Hartman and George “Jerry” Ellis, formed a support team, setting up meetings, exploring basements and researching answers to questions as they came up and generally providing a framework within each county so that Heckman could get as much accomplished as possible during her time there. Heckman arrived at her first stop, Fayette County, in spring 2008 after a brief period of orientation at the Archives. Willing and eager to help with the physical sorting of documents and books, she established her creditability as one willing to help, not just advise. After Heckman donned her working clothes previously reluctant county officials became enthusiastic records managers.

Heckman’s experiences as she got “down and dirty” in the storage areas of mostly nineteenth-century courthouses and outbuildings varied greatly. In one courthouse that had once been heated with coal she found records deposited in the spaces where the coal had been stored; the ledgers and documents were filthy with coal dust. In another the courthouse had been built above a small stream and the basement areas accommodated both the brook and the records. Courthouse attics were no less challenging with narrow stairs and cramped spaces. Records were often found jammed in every available cranny. In spite of the often medieval conditions under which historic documents were stored, most volumes and papers survived with less damage than might have been expected. Accessibility to the public was another story, however. Counties without archives or records management programs encounter difficulty locating older records, and many do not have the resources to provide safe access both for the public and the records, some of which have been looted over the years and sold by unscrupulous individuals on the Internet.

During the initial year Heckman worked also in Greene, Somerset, Indiana, Blair, Cambria, and Bedford Counties. In Greene County she discovered deeds recording land ownership stored in a basement area prone to flooding. This was an unusually perilous situation because the back-up records (in the form of microfilm) were also stored in the courthouse. A disaster could have forever wiped out the county’s history of land transactions. Through her efforts the microfilm was removed to proper off-site storage. Within a few months of her departure the basement area flooded. In every county Heckman made sure the official records keepers were educated on archival and records management practices and principles. It became apparent early on that improving the location and layout of storage spaces would require more than just a list of environmental standards and suggested building materials. In one county alone eleven rooms were identified for storage and floor plans were drawn to show how much capacity could be created by the use of efficient configurations. The floor plans became a popular tool for visualizing what could be done rather than what was being done.

During her second year Heckman began work in counties in which Marcellus Shale exploration and drilling were having the greatest impact on daily courthouse business. Bradford, Susquehanna, Wayne, and Wyoming Counties were experiencing a surge in historical records usage as drilling companies seeking to establish land ownership literally set up shop in the Recorder of Deeds offices and overflowed into hallways and rotundas. These counties were particularly eager to establish control over their oldest records having suddenly awakened to the demand for them. In one of the counties Heckman discovered a large number of early court records in an attic space the officials believed to be empty. Through Heckman, the county historical society assisted the county with inventorying and providing access to the records. Other counties participating in the second year of the project were Lackawanna, Monroe, Carbon, and Northampton. Heckman left each county with comprehensive reports, procedures documents, disaster response and vital records manuals, floor plans, and recommendations to accompany the hands-on training and physical work. As she spent time in each county she became familiar with its records and storage conditions and had plans in place for improvement if it was not yet actively involved in making changes.

Feedback from these counties was so overwhelmingly positive that others contacted the State Archives to participate in the project. Taking advantage of a special grant from NHPRC, the Archives received permission to extend the program to part of a third year. The remaining counties included in the project were Luzerne, Cumberland, Northumberland, Clinton, Potter, Huntingdon, and Adams, totaling twenty-three. Nearly one-third of Pennsylvania counties received enormous benefits from the efforts of PHMC’s intrepid itinerant archivist.

The counties participating in the program contributed staff time and money to work towards significant improvements in safeguarding and accessing their records. Their enthusiastic support for the project and the relationships forged with local officials throughout the Keystone State will be of great benefit to the State Archives and its local records program. Even though budget shortfalls will slow implementation of some recommendations made for the counties, many more will be put in place and the improvement in the level of appreciation of the importance of maintaining and providing access to Pennsylvania’s important documentary heritage will make a difference for years
to come.


George “Jerry” Ellis, a native of Dallas, Texas, completed a career in the U.S. Navy before joining the Pennsylvania State Archives in 2001 as an archivist. He initially worked with the Reference Section where he was responsible for modern military records. He currently serves in the Archives and Records Management Services Section which provides training in records management, disaster planning, vital records protection, and archival procedures for local governments and non-profit historical records repositories. He also appraises and accessions state agency records and processes selected records of county and municipal governments for inclusion in the holdings of the State Archives. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and received a master’s degree from Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania.


Susan T. Hartman is head of Archival and Records Management Services at the Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg, administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. She is responsible for assisting local governments and state agencies with records management issues, including retention and disposition and appraising records for historical value. She also works to promote sound records management and archival practices for all types of records-keeping institutions and to encourage compliance with records laws. The author holds a master’s degree in history from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and a master’s degree in library and information science from the University of Kentucky.