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Key Texas Historical Records Face Uncertain Future

HOUSTON, Aug. 31, 2011 /PRNewswire/ — Key documents that shed light on historic periods in the birth and growth of Texas face an uncertain future due to poor preservation practices and limited resources in court record archives across the state, according to a report released today Wednesday, August 31, 2011by a task force charged with reviewing the situation by the Supreme Court of Texas.

The records — many that are decaying or being destroyed due to a mix of events and conditions — contain information about famous Texans, record the lives of ordinary residents of the Lone Star State during historic periods of time and, for some, such as African Americans, may contain the only information that exists about their ancestors.

TASK FORCE BILL KROGER / Bill Kroger, Chair, Texas Court Records Preservation Task Force. (PRNewsFoto/Task Force)
Bill Kroger, Chair, Texas Court Records Preservation Task Force. (PRNewsFoto/Task Force)

“We have spent the past two years volunteering time to study and learn about the preservation of these records,” said Bill Kroger, chair of The Texas Court Records Preservation Task Force and a partner at Baker Botts L.L.P. Mark Lambert, Deputy Commissioner of Archives and Records for the Texas General Land Office, is vice chair of the Task Force.

“After visiting with district and county clerks across the state, collecting surveys and reviewing documents and records at more than 500 storage facilities, we learned that while some clerks have the necessary resources and are doing a good job preserving records, other clerks need substantial help going forward to keep from losing important historical information,” Kroger said.

Lambert said: “Some counties store their irreplaceable historic records in places such as metal storage containers, poorly maintained buildings, and maintenance sheds that hold equipment, chemicals, and holiday decorations near their records. Many counties do not have secure, air-conditioned and humidity controlled storage for their records, the single best solution for their long-term preservation. Clerks are generally aware of these issues, but they need better assistance from the community and from other elected county officials.”

Kroger added, “There is also more we could be do at the State level, such as fundraising and better state-wide training. Our report tries to address some of the issues.”

Among the endangered documents is the record of the trial and sentencing of outlaw John Wesley Hardinin 1878. Hardin shot and killed Deputy Sheriff Charles Webb in Comanche County in 1874. He fled Texas but was hunted down by Texas Ranger John B. Armstrong in Pensacola, Florida. Hardin was brought back to Comanche County where he was tried and convicted of murder. The District Clerk of Comanche County is so worried about these records of the case that she keeps the file in a secret place in her office.

The story about Hardin doesn’t end with his trial. He served time for the murder conviction in a Huntsvilleprison. He was released from prison only to be shot and killed by John Selman Sr. in 1895. Kroger has seen court papers pertaining to Selman’s killing of Hardin for sale on the Internet.

This is just one example of what district and county clerks face in trying to preserve the records of Texashistory.

“These documents are our living history, the parchment of our past,” said Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson. “We must preserve them so that our descendants will appreciate the Texas they have inherited.”

The Task Force report, which will be formally presented to the Texas Supreme Court at a special hearing on September 26, 2011, identifies a number of preservation problems, including:

  • improper storage and handling at the storage facilities;
  • effects of moisture and temperature fluctuations;
  • ravages of rats, bugs and vermin; and
  • the acidity of the ink and the poor quality of paper used in recording information.

“Also, there are cases where records have been given away by government officials, or stolen by thieves and sold on the Internet,” Kroger said. “In some cases they were destroyed by fires, hurricanes or other natural disasters. Many records are stored in dilapidated structures — with no air conditioning or climate controls — and even in rail cars and storage bins.”

The Task Force found that while many clerks are skilled in modern management of electronic and other current court records, many clerks, especially those in old counties with small populations, have not been able to collect enough money to preserve records, Kroger added.

Among the Task Force recommendations:

  • better document preservation training for district and county clerks;
  • the adoption of better record handling and security;
  • development of statewide storage and preservation policies and procedures; and
  • more sustained, coordinated enforcement by state officials against thieves who are stealing these records.

At the hearing in September before the Texas Supreme Court, the Task Force will present the report to the Court. It will also unveil 20 previously undiscovered or not well known historic court records that were previously unpreserved.

These records have now been preserved by Louisiana Binding Services because of donations from the law firm of Baker Botts, L.L.P. and the State Bar of Texas.

“These records, which are now beautifully preserved, are of immense historical importance. In 20 documents, we have tried to tell the history of the State of Texas. We hope these records will illustrate the importance of preserving these documents going forward. These records are some of the crown jewels of the state.” says Kroger. “The Task Force hopes that the public will attend the hearing. It will be a special day.”

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