By Jennifer M. Goldson, AICP
April 2009: In March 2006, the CPA statute was amended to include “documents and artifacts” within the definition of historic resources. Since that time, many communities have used CPA funds for document preservation projects, including document conservation and restoration projects and improvements to storage systems, such as installing climate controls.
However, in the process of reviewing applications for preservation of documents, CPCs and commissions have questioned which documents should qualify as “historic” under the definition contained in the CPA legislation. Since documents are not included on the State Register, it is necessary for the local historical commission to determine historic significance of documents per Section 2 of the Community Preservation Act (MGL c.44B). So what evaluation criteria can commissions use?
Determining the Historic Significance of Documents
In discussions with document conservation professionals at the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) and the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC), the generally accepted criteria for determining the significance of buildings can be translated to documents to some extent, however, age of documents may not be as important as other factors.
As Walter Newman, [former] Director of Paper Conservation at NEDCC points out, the Society of American Archivists defines the term “historic” as “noteworthy among past events or old things” and goes on to note that the term “historic” connotes significance, whereas “historical” implies nothing more than age.
To determine significance of documents commissions can refer generally to the National Register Criteria: Is the document associated with a significant event or person? Does it have distinctive characteristics or yield important information?
As Gregor Trinkaus-Randall, Preservation Specialist at MBLC, explains, records designated as permanent on the state’s records retention schedules for municipal records have an importance to the community that transcends age – that is why permanent records, like birth, marriage, and death records, can be considered historic resources under CPA if the Historical Commission determines per the statute that they are significant in “. . . the history, archeology, architecture, or culture of a city or town.” However, it is important to remember that, per MGL c.44B Section 6, “The community preservation funds shall not replace existing operating funds, only augment them.” You’ll want to be careful that you are not using CPA funds to pay for expenditures or staff that are included in the municipality’s general budget, as you would be in violation of Section 6.
First Ensure a Quality Storage Environment
Mr. Trinkaus-Randall also advises that before a community considers funding the preservation of individual documents, it should first ensure that the quality and environment of the storage area and containers meet archival standards. Appropriate environmental controls in the records’ storage areas are generally considered the most cost-efficient preservation step that can be taken for a large quantity of records. Furthermore, it does no good to spend funds on conservation work only to return the documents to conditions which would continue the deterioration of the materials.
As Valarie Kinkade, principal of Museum and Collector Resource and a member of the Concord CPC, points out, “It’s critical to explain that providing proper storage materials, such as archival quality boxes and shelving, is just as much a preservation activity as sending documents off to a conservator.”
Additionally, for document preservation as with any type of CPA project, it is wise to determine the level of need for the project – for example, what condition are the documents in and what is their level of risk for deterioration?
Project Example: Mendon Preserves the Declaration of Independence
As reported by the Milford Daily News in March 2009, Mendon Town Meeting approved the appropriation of $80,000 of CPA funds to resolve humidity and drainage problems in the vault where records, which date to the 17th century and include a copy of the Declaration of Independence, are stored. The photograph on the left shows Mendon’s copy of the Declaration of Independence. Peter Denton of Mendon’s Community Preservation Committee explains that he was glad to support the project because there was a clear need to remove the mold and stop the deterioration of the pages. “If they continue to get moldy they will be unreadable,” said Mr. Denton.
For more information about document conservation, contact:
Gregor Trinkaus-Randall, Preservation Specialist at MBLC, at firstname.lastname@example.org, 1-800-952-7403 x 236 or Michael Lee, Director of Paper Conservation at NEDCC, at email@example.com, 978-470-1010, ext 228.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author, are not intended to be used as legal advice, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Community Preservation Coalition.