Old Washington County jail being turned into new home for county archives

Gary B. Gray • Apr 30, 2012 at 6:53 AM

Washington County’s first archivist sat in his modest and sparsely furnished office this week calmly describing in simple terms what actually is a monumental task.

On Jan. 23, Ned Irwin, East Tennessee State University’s archivist since 1994 and a specialist in the field for 25 years, was appointed by the County Commission to house, order and give tender loving care to important court and deeds records as well as some of the oldest scribblings from America’s first VIPs dating back more than 230 years.

Four locked tractortrailers sit side-by-side near the old county jail in Jonesborough stuffed full of court cases, deeds, records from the county’s sheriff’s department and other valuable items that in late January were moved from the Downtown Centre, which had been used by the county for records storage and other functions since 1987.

Meanwhile, two floors of the old jail adjoining the Washington County Courthouse are being transformed. Workers are cutting away the heavy steel bars, and other parts and pieces that used to house inmates in what now is being called the Washington County Archive Annex.

The noise made by the cutting and grinding caused Irwin to stick his fingers in his ears as he guided a Johnson City Press reporter and photographer through the area. The noise level, and ambiance, was more fitting for a conversation back at his office.

“I really will be wearing two hats — that of an archivist and a records manager,” he said. “We have a monthly meeting at the Jonesborough Library, and we had a group of about 20 very positive volunteers. I’m still just getting settled in, and I couldn’t do this without volunteers. They will be helping with simple things in the short term, such as making copies. But as we go, there will be a wealth of opportunities for volunteers.”

Irwin has a staff of one. And until the day comes when the old jail is restored and the records are put in place, he’s going to be needing some help.

“Volunteers also can help determine what records have historical value, or older documents which the county does not often need,” he said. “I’ll be working with department heads to determine what records are appropriate to come to the archives.”

He said other records may be deemed temporary, such as certain receipts and other materials which by state law have various retention requirements. That means every two, three or five years, some documents cycle out.

“The general rule is 10 percent of records have permanent value, but it varies from department to department,” he said. “Records have been stored all over the place, and this is going to help so that nothing gets lost between the cracks.”

Not a lot can be done until the “heavy lifting” is done. That includes working with Tony Street with the Johnson City architectural firm Beeson Lusk & Street, who will more closely examine the two floors when jail remnants are removed to determine the specific square footage and available shelf space.

A reception, or help-desk area, will be created from what used to serve as an inmate processing center. Irwin said there will be a space converted into a kitchen area, and there will be storage work spaces created throughout.

“Initially, people will need to physically come down to look at the documents, but we will be digitizing a lot of it,” he said. “There’s a lot of labor, time and technical expense. You’re talking about millions of pieces of paper. The immediate goal is to get those records into a new space. “You can’t put a price on some historic records and documents. The state’s history began here.”

As Irwin said the day he was appointed to his new position, the job of preserving such important documents is “humbling.”

To volunteer, call Ned Irwin at 753-0393 or email nirwin@wash  ingtoncountytn.org  .

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