KEVIN LEININGER: Allen County working to preserve some bits of history, avoid threat from others

The Allen County Recorder's office currently stores records in the Courthouse basement, but some are deteriorating fast. (Courtesy photo)
Bill Hartman
Anita Mather
Allen County's records will now be stored and preserved inside a cave near Pittsburgh. (Courtesy photo)
Kevin Leininger

According to the Film Foundation, half of all American motion pictures made before 1950 and more than 90 percent made prior to 1929 are lost forever — mostly because they were shot on nitrite film that over time tended to decompose or even burst into flame.

A telltale whiff of vinegar has alerted officials to take action before some of Allen County’s vital documents suffer a similar fate.

“We have 3,800 rolls of microfilm, and some of them are starting to smell,” said County Recorder Anita Mather, who last week persuaded the County Commissioners to approve a plan under which the film currently stored in the Courthouse basement will be shipped to a climate-controlled cave near Pittsburgh at a cost of $2,700, plus $600 per month.

Mather’s office handles mostly real estate records; the deeds, covenants and other items that go largely unnoticed after they are filed — until they’re needed, of course. Thanks to a state mandate to preserve such things, it’s Mather’s job to make sure that need can be met.

“This is the only way we know they’ll still be here in 100 years,” she said.

But isn’t the digital revolution rendering paper and film records obsolete? Not necessarily, Mather said, because it’s still unclear how long electronic files or compact discs will last before they begin to deteriorate. So even though paper records are fading into history — 68 percent of her office’s records are submitted electronically — a film copy will be necessary until the longevity of digital records is established.

And with Mather’s film archive growing by 70 rolls per year, the Courthouse basement eventually would become too small for the job even if its conditions were ideal. Which they’re not.

Therein lies something of an irony. Despite ever-evolving technology, the county’s deal with Boston-based Iron Mountain Inc. will to a great deal rely on nature itself to provide the preservation the Courthouse basement has not. Allen County’s records will be shipped to a 145-acre former limestone mine in Boyer, Pa., where it will be stored 200 feet below the surface at roughly 35 degrees and 5 percent humidity.

And, thanks to digital communications, the film can be scanned and transmitted back to Allen County almost immediately if necessary.

“The film can last 500 years if it’s properly taken care of,” Mather said — by which time digital or some other form of archiving will have become the norm. For now, though, it’s good to know she and other officials are doing what they can to prevent vital Hoosier documents from “going Hollywood.”

Dangerous history?

While Mather is working to conserve still-useful aspects of the past, another Allen County official is concerned historic leftovers may present a danger to the public and a liability to taxpayers.

At the suggestion of Highway Department Director Bill Hartman, the Commissioners last week agreed to pay Engineering Resources Inc. $38,000 to study abutments left over from mostly old iron bridges that have long since vanished or been replaced with more modern spans.

The firm will focus on old stone abutments outside Fort Wayne and New Haven city limits that are considered tall enough to pose a falling hazard. Stone or concrete piers that are within rivers but do not have walking access are not included.

The exercise is not simply academic, Hartman said. A few years ago someone was injured after falling from one of the abutments. But the plan is only the beginning of the process, Hartman said — not the end.

The results will be used to craft a plan to prioritize and eliminate the dangers.

At additional expense, of course. But probably less than it would cost, in both human and financial terms, if those old bridges to nowhere remain an attractive nuisance.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.