Robert Wysong is the gatekeeper of Montgomery County's past. He meets occasional visitors at the entrance to the County Records Center in Rockville, where government documents dating to 1869 are stored in 22,000 cardboard boxes stacked eight feet high.

No one knows which records are historic treasures and which are garbage.

So Montgomery County announced last week that it will establish a county archives, the first in the state. The county is planning to hire a professional archivist to sift through the boxes at the record center, extracting meeting minutes, letters, plans and other data with historical value.

These documents, estimated to be only about 5 percent of the material stored in the record center, will then be moved to the old red-brick courthouse in Rockville, where they will be open to the public. The other 95 percent are destined for the shredder, said Philip L. Cantelon, an archivist from Rockville who did some initial research on the contents.

County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist said the archives, which will cost the county $50,000 a year to operate, is long overdue.

"It's high time we went through these records to determine what is important and what ought to be kept for the public record," Gilchrist said.

Currently, documents ranging from 1869 tax records to 1983 council minutes are stored at the records center, a warehouse near the Shady Grove Metro station on the outskirts of Rockville.

Aside from the bound tax records and three county atlases dating to 1949, the boxes -- holding one cubic foot of paper each -- are not open to the public because, Wysong said, "it would be like looking in someone's file cabinets." The documents belong to the originating agencies and occasionally are used by county officials, but "there's no room to put them in the office, so they all come here," said Wysong, the property manager at the center. All records will become public when they are transferred to the archives, he said.

Cantelon, a professional archivist and president of History Associates Inc., proposed the archives when he suggested that the council create a place to store records tracing the decision-making process of planning and development in the county. Cantelon's company was hired earlier this year to weed out confidential material and insignificant records.

After two months of examining box labels without actually sorting through the contents, he pinpointed 2,560 boxes of maps, photographs, blueprints, minutes, budgets and other county government records for possible inclusion in the 2,200 square feet of space designated for the archives. Cantelon said that ultimately 4,000 boxes of material will be stored and a reading room will enable the public to use records when the archives open in March.

The archives fall under the jurisdiction of the county department of libraries. Agnes Griffen, director of libraries, said the bidding process for the project of establishing and maintaining the archives will begin next week.

"The archives will make future historians happy," Griffen said. "Someone looking for records in the future will be able to get at them and know where to look for them. It also will free up office space because instead of keeping everything, trained archivists will identify what's worth saving and the rest will be tossed away."

Meanwhile, Cantelon said the county keeps ordering file cabinets or sending material to the records center, where, Wysong says, he has enough data to fill 3,000 four-drawer file cabinets.

Other important materials are sent to the state archives in Annapolis. About 1,150 cubic feet of Montgomery County documents, including circuit court and land records dating to the county's origination in 1776, are kept there, said Patricia Vanorny, director of state and local records at the state archives.

But there major gaps at the record center, Cantelon said. Most of the early 20th-century material has been thrown away.

"That's why you need the archives," he said. "If you don't have it, in 25 years you won't have most of the records in there now, either."

Looking through a torn and yellowed atlas from 1949, when hundreds of acres of farmland dominated the county and White Flint was a golf club, not a shopping mall, Wysong noted that it was a shame that earlier maps and records have been lost. He said insignficant records are destroyed according to procedures established by the state archives after the usefulness of the documents expires. However, important records also have been lost inadvertently, he said.

"I'm sure there are other records that may have historical value," Wysong said. "But they may be stashed away in someone's closet, for all we know."