Delaware News

Century-old city records headed online

Often relevant today, earliest Delaware record books will be digitized thanks to state grant

By ThisWeek Community News  • 

On Jan. 1, 1912 -- the final year the Delaware City Fire Department employed a horse-drawn unit -- the department budget allowed for $500 to be spent on maintaining the stables and purchasing horse feed.

In the late 1800s, the city was responsible for the public library and had a committee that oversaw its budget and operations.

The Delaware sewer and water utility departments paid daily wages of 75 cents to workers in October 1903.

Such historical tidbits are handwritten inside 34 leather-bound books tucked away in the basement of City Hall.

"It's amazing to read these and see that they're writing about roads that you drive on and buildings you see every day," said city Executive Assistant Michele Kohler, who has spent the last five years scanning and creating PDFs from annexation documents and City Council records.

She's been able to completely digitize and organize records books from 1937 to the present, but those large, bound books that contain hundreds of immaculately handwritten pages detailing ordinances and meeting minutes from 1857 to 1936 still are waiting to be taken into the modern age.

With the help of a $1,000 grant from the Ohio Historical Records Advisory Board, the city finally will be able to begin preserving the historical texts and making them more readily available to the public.

"These volumes are critical because they contain all of the work of City Council," City Law Director Darren Shulman wrote in the grant application he submitted to the board in February. "These volumes represent the only copies, so if they continue to deteriorate, an entire period of the city's history will be lost."

In June, the board awarded the grant, and in September, the city entered into an agreement with document-conservation company Iron Mountain to purchase a scanner that not only will turn the records in PDFs, but rotate and flip the pages -- a luxury for Kohler, since some of the books reach double digits in pounds.

The grant won't cover the cost of the scanner, Shulman said, so he'll have to appeal to council for additional funds. But he said he's confident council members will see the importance of maintaining the documents.

In addition to the records serving as a reference for fun historical facts, the law requires them to be retained, in part to provide information that's relevant today. For instance, residents who need to know where their property lines end in respect to alleys, or developers who need information about easements, might find the answers in records from as far back as the early 1900s.

"Not only is the world moving more digital when it comes to all records, but you really don't want to lose all this cool stuff," Shulman said.

"There are cities that have lost all their books to floods or fires, so we'd like to move them -- because a basement where it's wet and damp is the worst possible place," he said.

The earliest records are kept inside protective coverings because they're so fragile.

"They really should be in a temperature-controlled environment," Kohler added as she flipped through one book, whose pages were crumpled and damaged by water. All the records in the small archive room are kept off the floor because the basement has flooded in the past, Kohler said.

Shulman said once the historical books are digitized, he'd like the city to relocate them to a more appropriate storage place -- possibly the former Delaware Gazette building, which the city purchased earlier this year but has not yet been designated for a purpose.

The city began typing its records in 1937, which allows Kohler to easily complete word searches when residents, builders and historians request information. She said she can email copies of archived documents to anyone who requests them.

History buffs who aren't looking for any specific agenda items also are welcome to see the books under supervision by setting up a meeting with Kohler.

"Another reason reading them is kind of interesting is because you see the people's names in these books and we don't know who they are," Shulman said. "But I think about how, 100 years from now, someone will see our names in the council minutes and think, 'Who are they?' "

Kohler agreed, joking, "Yeah, they'll probably be finding a new way to preserve things by then and someone will be saying, 'Wow, this lady was really crazy about PDFs.' "

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