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Preserving Collin County’s history: Proprietary techniques give new life to old documents
Photo courtesy of Chris Hudson - Each Collin County Courthouse document is scanned so a digital copy is available for easy access.
Deep within the confines of the Collin County Courthouse are thousands of cardboard boxes containing district court records. With records going back to 1846, those files are often the only copies in existence.
If they deteriorate to the point of no longer being readable, their history is gone forever, said District Clerk Andrea Stroh Thompson. For this reason, Thompson and her staff are working to preserve the records for future generations.
“This is the history of Collin County, and people don’t even know it is here,” Thompson said. “We are doing everything we can right now to try and protect it and preserve it.”
A portion of the records tell the story of the Boren family, a group of apparent troublemakers that committed various crimes in the 1800s and early 1900s, including the theft of a cow and playing card games in a public place.
A file from the early 1870s details a more serious case against a member of the Boren family.
In that case, an indictment written in beautiful calligraphy details an assault allegedly committed by Jack Boren. The indictment reads that Jack “did strike, kick, beat, wound, bruise and other wrongs to the said Henry Martin then and there did against the peace and dignity of the state.”
The county archives also contain the records of Ezell Stepp, the last man to be hanged in Collin County, as well as the trial records of several members of Bonnie and Clyde’s gang. It seems the gang members had a habit of stealing cars in Collin County that were then used as getaway vehicles, Thompson said.
To help preserve the county’s history, Thompson enlisted the help of Kofile Preservation, a Dallas company that specializes in preserving historic documents.
Located in a non-descript brick building south of Love Field, Kofile preserves everything from colonial American maps and family Bibles to criminal dockets from some of the most famous criminals in American history.
“The preservation industry is really something new in Texas,” said Scott Williams, a conservator at Kofile. “Before this, people simply watched the historical documents decay on the shelves. The awareness started strongly really 10 years ago, when the clerks started to collect the preservation fund.”
In Collin County, the district clerk collects a $5 preservation fee on most court filings, Thompson said. While this fee will never cover the cost of preserving all of the documents in the county’s backlog, Thompson said it will hopefully allow the county to preserve the oldest documents and bridge the gap until the cost of preservation goes down and further documents can be preserved. Each document is also scanned so a digital copy is available for easy access.
Once files are received by Kofile, trained preservationists log every page to ensure proper record keeping. When the logging is complete, individual pages are addressed by workers who use hot irons to remove tape, one of the most damaging things that can be applied to historical records.
“The adhesive on tape is very acidic, so we try and remove all of that,” Williams said. “If you look under a piece of tape as it is aging, that is always where it is the yellowest because of the acid that migrates through the sheet. That is where it is the strongest.”
Once the tape is removed, the workers use a special Japanese tissue paper made from rice to repair any tears that are revealed. A vacuum table is then used to remove staining and restore pages back to as close to original as possible, Williams said.
At this point, a coat of magnesium oxide is sprayed on the pages to de-acidify the iron gall ink used on documents printed prior to the industrial revolution. The spray also works to take the acid out of papers used after the revolution, when paper was no longer made with 100 percent linen.
“It is like spraying the paper with liquid Tums,” joked Kofile’s Don Faulkenberry.
Once the acid in the ink and paper has been made pH neutral, the documents are placed inside a polyester sleeve and then into a metal binder with a clamp and O-ring to offer additional protection.
“This binder was developed after Hurricane Katrina to address what went wrong in the Louisiana archives,” Williams said. “After Katrina, everything above the water line still got saturated because of the high humidity. The paper soaked up the moisture like a sponge. This binder is water resistant and is wrapped in a fire-proof material.”
During the process of preparing the records to be sent to Kofile, Thompson said she has gained a further appreciation for the legal system and has come to realize that things were not too different 150 years ago.
“We still keep records in much of the same way, but it is not artistic and poetic anymore like it used to be,” she said. “It is a real glimpse into a different age, but because so much of it is the same, you can understand what you are looking at.”