There are roughly 10,000 boxes worth of old municipal records spread across Pittsburgh, according to City Archivist Nick Hartley, or roughly 10,000 cubic feet worth.
They live in basements and office spaces and in stacks with little to no rhyme or reason. They include old maps, records with genealogical significance, and run-of-the-mill clerical copy.
Most, if not all, are inactive. Some have sat for decades, maybe longer, forgotten in the digital age and in a city busily producing scores of new records each day.
But two bills before Pittsburgh City Council would begin the slow process of sorting them out.
The first of the bills, Bill No. 539, would revise the Commission on City Archives to expand its duties and staff. The second, Bill No. 540, would create a Records Management Division within the Office of the City Clerk to standardize record-keeping practices citywide.
Appearing before City Council this week, Hartley pushed for their passage. He’s the city’s first archivist, a position recommended by the Commission on City Archives in 2016.
But while his role was meant to address concerns with the preservation of important and historical records, Hartley said he quickly discovered a more fundamental issue with how Pittsburgh manages its paperwork — or, more aptly, how it doesn’t.
“We create them, we use them, but we’ve never really had someone on board to think about what happens to them,” Hartley told The Incline by phone on Friday. He said the city needs to take a more corporate approach.
There are few, if any, written policies that concern the administration of records, Hartley explained, resulting in “ad hoc and uneven practices in the storage, retrieval, use and destruction of records.” There’s also a lack of controls “to ensure the authenticity and reliability of records, especially when they’re in digital form,” and there are no schedules in place to determine “how long records should be kept and what should happen to them once they’re no longer active.”
“Without retention schedules, we can’t maintain an accurate inventory of city records, nor can we ensure that important records are preserved indefinitely,” Hartley told council on Wednesday.
For the most part, he added, these inactive records end up in overflow spaces, packed away in boxes and forgotten.
“There was a vacant building in Oakland that had, I’d say, close to 200 boxes of old Board of Viewers reports from 1870-ish to probably 1960,” Hartley recalled. “Clearly, none of our departments needed them to fulfill their responsibilities in the past 50 to 60 years, but they contain a lot of info the public might be interested in. […] In all these files there was court testimony and residents talking about themselves and their properties, and that’s something genealogists would be interested in.” (The Board of Viewers traditionally dealt with property tax assessments and any related disputes.)
There are also thousands of maps lying scattered in storage, but, Hartley explained, they’ve not been indexed in any way and are therefore useless.
“We don’t know what’s in these basements, and if we’re asked about a particular document, we can’t just go down to the basement and find it. That would take forever.”
So Hartley has proposed an ambitious new project to sort and catalogue these records and store them in a central location while also broadening the powers of his office to address the more systemic shortcomings with Pittsburgh’s record-keeping practices through the creation of a new Records Management Division, Bill No. 540. The division would be tasked with implementing policy and training programs for the city’s various departments.
Spokesman for Council President Bruce Kraus, Neil Manganaro, said both bills were “read, discussed, and voted/referred out of committee during the standing committees meeting on Wednesday of this week,” adding, “Council will bring them up for final consideration next week on Tuesday the 19th. Once that vote takes place, they go to the mayor for his signature.”
Manganaro said, “I expect them to pass final vote unanimously and to be quickly signed by Mayor [Bill] Peduto.”
The bills were proposed by Hartley, City Clerk Brenda Pree and the bills’ sponsor, Council President Bruce Kraus.
During Wednesday’s standing committee meeting of council, District 1 Councilmember Darlene Harris said she supported the need for continuity and more deliberate record-keeping practices.
“We have in the basement many, many records just tossed that are turning black with mold, and we have to do something,” Harris said.
District 4 Councilmember Anthony Coghill said photos of filthy and claustrophobic storage spaces housing city documents provided by Hartley confirmed the need for action.
“The pictures of the old storage units with boxes everywhere, you couldn’t have staged it any better to convince us there’s a need,” Coghill said.
And Councilmember Erika Strassburger of District 8 said it also proves the need for new policies and procedures to prevent this from happening again or from continuing to happen.
“We are creating new archives daily, and we need to know which things are important and which are not so they don’t get all jumbled up for people to deal with 50 years from now or 75 years from now,” Strassburger said.
But with more responsibility comes the need for more funding, and if the bills are passed by council and adopted by the mayor, Hartley will then need to secure that funding.
To fund additional positions, namely another archivist, a reference specialist and a records management analyst, Hartley said it will cost roughly $210,000 a year for salaries and benefits.
In 2019, he’ll request $135,000, in part due to the need for a vehicle to transport wayward records and files to a centralized location, in this case a warehouse, where they can be sorted and catalogued. In 2020 and 2023, he’ll ask for $58,000 and $74,000, respectively. That doesn’t include the $210,000 for salaries and costs mentioned above. (Hartley said this is ultimately the City Clerk’s initiative, and that the budget planning has been done with Council’s Budget Office.)
But from a historical, record-keeping and archival perspective — even from an efficiency perspective — Hartley said the cost is worth it and necessary.
“I’ve surveyed not all but quite a few of the city’s departments trying to narrow it down. I’d say it’s close to maybe 10,000 cubic feet of records in various locations across the city. Many are old but inactive. They’re in offices basements and sort of just wherever they could end up. And that’s why [the additional] archivist position is so essential. Now, we don’t really know exactly what’s in these basements, and we should.”