Fairfax supervisors authorized a $21 payment to the county's surveyor of roads at a July 9 meeting the first year they convened. They spent $29.68 on lumber. An additional $46 was paid out for the removal of rocks on local roads.
These expenses, infinitesimal by today's standards, were incurred in 1870. They were carefully noted in ink in a book that recorded minutes of board meetings. The system is the same today, only it took a lot less paper back then to document the board's business, the first 14 years of which fits into one bound book. The book's home is a warehouse in Springfield, where it is kept with county records that fill some 50,000 boxes, the archives of nearly 200 years of Fairfax history.
Traffic tickets, health records of tuberculosis patients, evictions and civil process notices served by sheriffs, foster care records and rezoning applications -- all must be saved for varying spans of time. The archives are, with some effort, open for public perusal, though many people don't know they're there.
Presiding over the collection at 6800-A Industrial Rd. is Richard "Dick" Harrington, a veteran archivist who cut his teeth at the Library of Virginia in Richmond, which serves as the state's archives and government reference library. He's one of only a handful of specialists in the state who oversee the management of county records full time for a local government. The job, supported by six employees, requires the passion of a history buff and the organization of a file clerk.
And these days, the 26,000-square-foot warehouse in the Shirley Industrial Park, which once stored Xerox copiers, is running out of space for the county's paper.
"At this point, I have to get rid of new material to bring in new material," Harrington said. "So much paper is being created these days."
By an archivist's rule of thumb, each local government employee produces 1.5 cubic feet of retainable records each year. With 11,500 workers, Fairfax creates about 12,000 boxes annually. The county government launched a paper-saving project this year that aims to reduce its dependence on paper.
But producing and distributing certain correspondence electronically, even when people can be persuaded to adopt technology, leads to complications for an archivist. Saving records on computers means shifting data from one system to the next as soon as the first system becomes obsolete. That's costly, Harrington said, because electronic records must be scanned and converted into new formats.
The county's growing population is generating more paper, creating a challenge for Harrington. And Virginia gradually has upped its mandates on local governments to keep more records, no matter how obscure. For example, the Library of Virginia recently required that the proceedings and correspondence of airport authorities across the state be saved. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which runs Dulles International and Reagan National airports, is the state's largest such group.
"Things just keep getting added to the files," Harrington said.
Getting rid of files in a timely way has been one of Harrington's projects since he arrived in Fairfax two years ago. By state law, some records, such as ambulance runs, must be kept for three years and others longer. Admissions to local health care facilities must be saved 75 years, for instance. There's also the challenge of indexing which documents can be disposed of when and keeping track of which of those are confidential, such as those created by social service workers. Confidential trash gets hauled to the county's incinerator to be destroyed. The rest, should anyone care to look for it, is dumped in a landfill.
"Since I've come in, I've being trying to keep up with it," Harrington said of disposable records, noting how in previous years, the archives staff fell behind, keeping 800 boxes that should have been jettisoned. Last year 4,838 boxes were destroyed, while 4,870 came into the system, a far more comfortable margin. The new boxes are organized into an "accession," an archivist's term for a collection of newly filed records.
A small percentage of records are kept permanently, including the papers of former Board of Supervisors chairmen.
Democrat Katherine K. Hanley, who was board chairman for nine years, turned over 80 boxes as she left office last December, sorted by subject. True to her devotion to detail, "she retained an awful lot of records," Harrington said. Republican John F. "Jack" Herrity, by contrast, kept about 20 fewer boxes after 12 years as chairman in the 1970s and '80s. So far, Harrington said, no one from the public has requested Hanley's papers.
Harrington, 56, had a 27-year career in Richmond before state budget cuts in 2002 forced his layoff along with his department of 40 colleagues. He said he was pleased to land the job in Fairfax, where he commutes 90 miles each way on weekdays. And he said he does not mind the industrial digs just off Shirley Highway, which feature an office in the warehouse with a wall of gray bricks. It's a lot better than the bay of a truck wash next to the county's sewage treatment plant on Route 1, where the archives were kept before 1980.
Soft-spoken and earnest, Harrington is a pack rat himself, though his personal record-retention system is highly selective. Posters and postcards are his passion, and a well-tended, sizable collection of both sits in a closet at home, 300 posters stacked in acid-free plastic sleeves and 4,000 cards from all over the world.
He pulls them out for relatives and friends. "My wife thinks I'm crazy," he said. It's also what makes him devoted to his job: "I love being able to capture information and retain it."
Harrington and his staff received about 11,000 requests for records from the public last year. Most were faxed or phoned in. The majority were for court records, including real estate-related searches for old titles sought by insurance companies. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Harrington said, he has noticed a dramatic increase in legal documents sought by law enforcement agencies investigating terrorist activity.
To retrieve the documents, the archives staff does the same as families climbing to their attics in search of meaningful things they stored years ago. In fact, sometimes only a ladder can reach the 30-pound boxes, which might sit 17 feet from the ground.
One organizational strategy might surprise the non-archivist: There is none. The boxes sit randomly for security reasons. "Looking for them when you don't know where they are is a bit like the 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,' " Harrington said.
To make locating their contents easier, each box is marked with a bar code that holds an electronic key to what's hidden inside, from papers of the Public Works Department to those of the Reston Community Center.
Between public requests, Harrington is looking back and looking ahead. Working with a crew of volunteers, an archivist on Harrington's staff is sorting public assistance records from the late 19th and early 20th centuries that have never been archived. The boxes, with yellowing envelopes inside, are labeled "Overseers of the Poor," testaments to the goods and money the county donated to the poor. The envelopes eventually will be stored in acid-free sheaths in an air-conditioned room in the warehouse.
And Harrington is trying to bring in new technology to help display old records, as part of the county's first steps to scan historical records for viewing on the Fairfax government Web site.
A new computer software program is making the project possible, starting with material kept in the Virginia Room of the Fairfax Library. About 500 test items will be chosen from a collection that includes old newspapers; the lectures from 1925 to 1960 of W.T. Woodson, the school superintendent with a high school named after him; and the correspondence of the Sager family, who owned Aspen Grove, an 18th century home off Roberts Road. The family also donated the land for the Fairfax Museum.
Harrington said he hopes one day to refer the public to the Web site to view Hanley's papers, since they are permanent. "That's the wave of the future."