The process of saving Oxford town records

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    RECORD KEEPER — Town Clerk Beth Olsen displays some of the dozens of old town records, these only 50 to 60 years old, which needs to be preserved and copied. (Photo by leslie Dixon)

    OXFORD — About half a dozen old town books, recorded on paper which was probably made from recycled soldier’s uniforms worn in the 1800s, are in Vermont being restored.

    And town officials hope taxpayers will be willing to put more money into the historic archival project in June when Annual Town Meeting gets underway.

    Town Clerk Beth Olsen said the town records, some of which were believed destroyed in a January 31, 1890 fire at a previous town hall building, were found in the basement vault of the current town office in precarious condition.

    Without immediate conservation and restoration action, the one-of-a-kind records would have eventually disintegrated.

    “Prior to 1892, all vital records were recorded at the town level only, therefore there were no back up records to those that were lost,” said Olsen. In the 1940s it appears that the Town Clerk did affidavits from friends and neighbors to try to have some kind of record of births for the citizens, she said. Those records still exist in the vault.

    Olsen said once the records were discovered and assessed it was quickly apparent that something had to be done to save them.

    Voters at the 2017 Annual Town Meeting agreed to fund a $20,000 project that allowed the town to contract with  Kofile Technologies in Essex, Vermont, to begin the process to restore and conserve the  town records.

    The preservation program designed by the company, which has been preserving town records for almost 60 years, results in allowing ongoing access to the records by record keepers and, where legally appropriate, to the public by conserving, restoring and digitizing old records.

    Unlike rare books and manuscripts that libraries, museums and others around the world hold, public records are meant to be used and therefore Restoration methods are different, said Joe Degnan of Kofile Technolgies in a phone interview with the Advertiser Democrat Monday.

    “We work mostly with town records,” said Degnan. “Unlike rare books which should not be treated because of their value, this is about preserving town records.”

    Oxford’s records, like many other town records they have encountered across the country, have been damaged by the acidic quality of the ink that was used at the time.

    Iron Gall Ink was very common at that time, he said of the 1800s when town clerks across the country wrote their vital records including births, death and marriages, taxes, land and other vital records in this type of ink.

    “Most of the Oxford records we’re working on are written in iron gall ink,” said Bill Stewart of Kofile Technologies who is working directly on the Oxford books.

    Made primarily from tannin (most often extracted from galls which are a swelling of plant tissue usually due to fungi or insect parasites and sometimes forming an important source of tannin), vitriol (iron sulfate), gum, and water, Iron Gall Ink was considered inexpensive and readily available. Documents across the world in museums, archives and libraries, town and city halls and other places used it as standard drawing and writing ink, from about the 5th century to the 19th century. It remained in use well into the 20th century, according to information obtained from IronGallInk.com website.

    The problem, said Degnan, is that the ink tended to bleed through older paper – particularly recycled paper.

    In Oxford, as was common elsewhere, the town clerks sometimes used what are called “blue pages,” –  pages that are bluish in color. Though in fairly common use in the 19th century, they were not a high quality paper. They were made from rags – including soldiers’ blue uniforms.

    “The blue paper is a combination of old uniforms., other scraps of material from the textile industry, rags and wood pulp that was combined and dyed blue. Its just a real nasty quality paper,” said Stewart.

    The first set of books, four volumes dating between 1892 and 1944 and two volumes of vital records dating back to 1892, were sent to Vermont for preservation last year.

    Degnan said the process to restore the Oxford town records involves dismantling the book and removing the cover boards and stitching. The paper is then lightly surface cleaned , rips and tears are mended using Japanese tissue and folios (a single sheet of paper, folded once in the center to form two sheets or four sides) are reinforced.

    The key, he said, is to reduce the acid which is the main culprit in breaking down the books.

    Some records, written on very fragile paper, are put into archival polyester sleeves. That allows record keepers and the public, where appropriate, to handle them without getting oils from their finger on the original paper, which would continue to disintegrate them.

    Voters will be asked at the annual Town Meeting on June 9 to appropriate more money to continue the project, said Olsen.

    ldixon@sunmediagroup.net

    Leslie H. Dixon

    INK ISSUES —These pages in an 1853  town record book, written in script by Eliza Winter, a clerk in the town clerk’s office, speaks of a county commissioner issue. It is an example of a single copy record that needs to be preserved.

    Courtesy of Town of Oxford

    RESTORATION —This old record book is an example of a fragile book that is currently in Vermont being restored to ensure its contents are not lost.

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