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

May 11, 2017
1871 plan of the borough of Downingtown
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This 1871 plan of the borough of Downingtown was filed to confirm the layout of streets and alleys as ordered by the county court in 1873. It is now stored in the map case purchased with NEH funds.

Image courtesy of the Chester County Archives.

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.

 

kids stand around viewing an overhead scanner in use
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During Take Your Child to Work Day 2017, staff demonstrates the overhead scanner used to create images of historic records.

Image courtesy of the Chester County Archives.
building exterior
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CCARS is located in the Chester County Government Services Center, which opened in 1993. The GSC is just outside of the borough of West Chester.

Image courtesy of the Chester County Archives.

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.

room with bookshelves and computer workstations
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CCARS has three workstations for searching indexes and viewing images of scanned records.

Image courtesy of the Chester County Archives.
photograph of hallway with filing and shelves on each side
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View of the archives storage area of CCARS.

Image courtesy of the Chester County Archives.

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.

woman talking to kids
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During Take Your Child to Work Day 2017, visitors learn about “Crime and Punishment in Early Chester County.”

Image courtesy of the Chester County Archives.
old document
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In his 1737 petition, court clerk Joseph Parker advised the commissioners and assessors that the county’s records were in danger as the courthouse was not secure: “It is apparent to Every Person that will make use of his Eyes that the Doors are most commonly Left open for Horses and Cattle to go in and out … and the place made a Common Stage whereby Rude people Breaks the windows Treads down the Ceiling and commits many Disorders which if not timely Prevented must End in the Ruin thereof….”

Image courtesy of the Chester County Archives.

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. 

log book of taxes
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The British troops who fought at the Battle of the Brandywine took food, blankets, livestock, and other items from Chester County residents. The assessment for the 1778 state tax was done several months after the battle. In this tax record for Kennett Township, the entries for residents who lost property were marked “plundered.”

Image courtesy of the Chester County Archives.
map showing a division of land
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This 1793 draft shows the division of the land owned by Robert Chalfant, Sr., as directed by his will. The draft notes the location of the buildings, including the weaver shop left to his son Jonathan.

Image courtesy of the Chester County Archives

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.

survey map of a proposed road
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This 1846 survey shows a proposed road along the west branch of the Brandywine Creek. It is now stored in the map case purchased with NEH funds.

Image courtesy of the Chester County Archives.

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. 

Funding information

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