Washington County Archivist Ned Irwin looks over one of the thousands of old records. (Ron Campbell/Johnson City Press)
In early 2012, Washington County’s first archivist, Ned Irwin, humbly made a nest in his new office at 103 W. Main St. in Jonesborough and slowly but surely began his journey to save the county’s most valuable historical documents.
He’s still there, and he’s still a one-person department, but a large part of the overall plan has been put in motion. This includes the creation of the county’s first Department of Records Management and Archives and the relocation and safekeeping of county records and reference materials to the renovated former jail annex now known as the Archive Annex.
“The conditions aren’t quite ideal yet, but it’s certainly better than having them sitting in tractor-trailers,” Irwin said Tuesday. “Much of the material has been scanned and digitized, mainly deeds so far. At least the first step has been accomplished.”
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.
While the department was formally established by the County Commission on April 25, 2011, actual operations to organize the department did not start until Irwin began his tenure one year later.
The next major step will be the renovation of the county’s old office building and its transition into the new Washington County Archives Building once construction is complete inside the courthouse. The entire building will be used for the preservation of historical documents, with the first floor serving as an area where the public will have an opportunity to view the documents. About $10,000 to $12,000 a month is deposited in a reserve fund for the county’s archives operations, with the money coming from additional fees on vehicle registration and court fines.
Completing this first step, however, is quite an accomplishment, considering the logistics, the number of volunteers involved and that more than 4,000 linear feet of county records and more than 2,000 bound volumes have found a permanent home on the courthouse’s second and third floors.
Irwin literally started from scratch.
He began by developing connections with county commissioners, elected state and federal officials, county employees, archival professionals, volunteers, members of the public, researchers and genealogical and civic groups.
“It has been as important for them to come to know me as it was for me to learn their names, faces and personalities,” Irwin said. “Building such relationships allowed me to secure necessary support and assistance for what needed to be done. It might have been working with an architect on design plans or working with inmate work crews moving county records. It might have been answering questions at a commission or committee meeting or speaking at a civic club. In every area, something was learned that proved useful.”
In April 2012, a volunteer program was started to help with the physical movement of records.
Records in the Archive Annex, most of which had been stored at the Downtown Centre in Johnson City, are kept primarily for court clerks, deeds and the trustee. Ironically, the shelving was built by state prisoners and installed in a former jail that housed prisoners. Also, many of the original heavy, barred swinging doors leading into the various vaults and rooms have been kept in place.
“That’s about as good as security gets,” Irwin said while choosing one of the bulky, color-coded keys.
County commissioners have approved a bond that will help pay for the roughly $530,000 it will take to renovate the old office building. Beeson, Lusk & Street’s design for the building already has been approved, but it’s still hard to say just when construction can begin.
“The building originally was a bank constructed in 1915,” he said. “Some of the offices are still in use, so it has not been feasible to convert the building. Tony Street is creating detailed construction plans that must still be approved by the County Commission.”
The newly renovated building will include a large foyer where a secretary, or Irwin will greet both county officials and members of the public.
“A lot of people will be doing genealogy and family research,” he said. “There will also be a lot of people from ETSU here looking at early county records. The building will contain records with historical value, such as records from county meetings that date back to 1778. People also will be able to walk in and do deed searches at terminals.”
Irwin, who actually wears two hats and carries two titles, archivist and records manager, will keep his office in the old county office building, once it’s converted. But that won’t happen until the commission chambers are completely redone on the second floor. The Washington County Election Commission will have to have moved to its new home on the third floor, and various departments and offices must be relocated.
“You just have to stay focused,” he said.
• $193,199: Dollars expended on archive and annex renovations
• 50,000: Pounds of metal removed from old jail
• $9,000: Grant dollars awarded
• 4,036: Linear feet of records moved to Archive Annex
• 1804: Earliest dated document found so far in annex
• 113: Number of meetings attended
• 536: Number of hours contributed: 291 volunteer hours; 245 inmate hours
• 2,078: Number of bound volumes housed
Source: Washington County Department of Records Management and Archives first-ever annual report, 2012-2013: