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50 States of Preservation: Chester County Archives and Records Services in West Chester, PA

May 11, 2017 | By Ralph Canevali

This feature is part of a series we call “50 States of Preservation,” in which we are touring small and mid-sized museums, libraries, historical societies, and other repositories across the country to show how they are helping to preserve the nation’s cultural heritage.  Read other entries in the series here.

Established by William Penn in 1682, Chester County is one of the three original counties of Pennsylvania.  Chester County Archives and Records Services (CCARS), located just outside the county seat of West Chester, contains extensive records on the history of the region.  CCARS consists of a public research room and offices, a closed stacks storage room for the permanent archival collection, and a records center for materials with short-term retention requirements.  CCARS maintains these records in partnership with Chester County Historical Society, a private nonprofit organization.   CCARS’s archival collection consists of 2,940 volumes and 1,823 cubic feet of government records—the equivalent of more than 1,000 file cabinet drawers.   The chronological depth of Chester County’s documentary records is impressive. Most of the items date from 1714 to 1923, and they include land, tax, court, and probate records, along with minutes and publications of county boards and commissions.  Their variety and scope make these documents a treasure trove for genealogists, students, and academic researchers, who look to birth and death records, tavern licenses, slave manumissions, and poorhouse records to shed light on various aspects of life in Chester County, from colonial time to the present.

With the help of a NEH Preservation Assistance Grant, CCARS hired conservator Laura Hortz Stanton of the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts to provide a comprehensive assessment of preservation needs of its collections.  Her 2013 report included several key recommendations: (1) better handling and storage of oversized materials, such as records on property, roads, and boundaries, which are being used in an ongoing project to track troop movements during the Battle of the Brandywine,  a Revolutionary War battle fought in Chester County and neighboring Delaware County; and (2) increased environmental monitoring in the CCARS’s storage area. “We are grateful to NEH for providing funds to bring in the preservation expertise we do not have on staff,” said CCARS Director Laurie A. Rofini. “The assessment gave us direction for future projects.” The NEH grant also enabled several of its staff to participate in online courses related to the management of digital collections.

Past preservation efforts had focused on individual items and records series, such as the conservation of one hundred early deed books. That project was initiated by County Commissioner Terence Farrell during his tenure as Recorder of Deeds. “We are truly fortunate to have the most complete run of county government records in southeastern Pennsylvania. Receiving funding from NEH strengthens our ability to take care of the entire Archives collection properly,” said Farrell. 

Thanks to a second Preservation Assistance Grant in 2016, CCARS was able to acquire additional storage furniture and preservation-quality folders to rehouse oversized materials, a need identified by the earlier grant.  Also purchased was a datalogger, an electronic device that records changes in temperature and humidity in the collection area.  Finally, based in part on the recommendations of the consultant’s report, CCARS has installed water alarms and placed water-absorbing booms on its HVAC system to mitigate the dangers posed by leaks.

Since 2000, NEH has made nearly 2,000 Preservation Assistance Grants to small and mid-sized organizations to preserve and care for their humanities collections.  In all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, PAG awards have funded preservation assessments, purchase of shelving, environmental monitoring equipment, and preservation supplies, and training for staff.  Organizations in all states and U.S. territories are eligible to apply, and the program encourages applications from those new to NEH.  The next application deadline Preservation Assistance Grants for Smaller Institutions is May 1, 2018.  If you have any questions about this grant program, please contact us at preservation@neh.gov or 202-606-8570. 

The County of Chester, Chester County Archives received NEH support through Preservation Assistance Grants for Smaller Institutions, PG-51832-13 and PG-233551-16.