Feb 24
With Age Comes Wisdom

Recently I was part of a conversation where several young people regaled one another with stories of their parent's technological ineptitude. (These, the very people who had potty trained them!)  With a little time and patient instruction from their technological betters, however, the old folks were usually able to become somewhat competent with the use of TV remotes, e-mail, and simple computer programs. All this called to mind the words of wisdom of Douglas Adams a British wit and novelist best known for being the author of The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Universe.

 

1) everything that's already in the world when you're born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you're thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it's been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

Douglas Adams

The Sunday Times, August 29, 1999

 

I argue that there is a good reason that older people have problems with technology. All too often, after we have mastered a set of tools and techniques that meet our needs, someone thrusts  cutting-edge technology upon us. This was best described by something that Douglas Adams attributed to Bran Ferren:

 

Technology "is stuff that doesn't work yet."

So, you can imagine our dismay when more technologically capable youngsters do make it work.

 

Nevertheless, we mature folk do have a couple of advantages. First, we're not addicted. When my wife and I dine we actually talk to one another—unlike the very attractive young couple we saw recently: he was talking on his phone while she was texting on hers.

 

Our second advantage is that we have the wisdom to appreciate technology when it actually does make our life better. And technology does make life better. Some personal examples:

  1. 1. One of the highlights in my grandmother's life was the installation of a hand pump in her farmhouse kitchen so she no longer had to haul water from the well.
  2. 2. My father was born before the Wright brothers made their first powered flight—and lived to see man walk on the moon.
  3. 3. I recall our first TV set. It was a very nice piece of furniture and could receive signals 12 channels. But there were only 3 channels broadcasting in our area.
  4. 4. In high school I used a slide rule. Calculators are much better.
  5. 5. Have you tried sleeping in Texas summers in a house without air-conditioning? I have.

 

And, sometimes old technology makes a surprising come back. Just as I was finishing this little piece, I learned that the Navy is once again training its officers in celestial navigation. For decades navigators have depended on the Global Positioning System, but electronic systems can be hacked and satellites can be destroyed. Sextant and charts cannot be hacked and man has yet to figure out how to move a star.

 

Dec 22
Recordkeeping Principles in Literature

The Principles of Retention (an organization shall maintain records and information for an appropriate time, taking into account its legal, regulatory, fiscal, operational, and historical requirements) and Disposition (an organization shall provide secure and appropriate disposition for records and information that are no longer required to be maintained by applicable laws and the organization's policies) are two of the ARMA International's eight Generally Accepted Recordkeeping Principles. These are old ideas, better expressed long ago by a poet..  

Let me forget it; for my memory

Serves me too often as an unkind friend,

And I remember things I should forget,

While I forget the things I should remember.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,  Judas Maccabaeus

Dec 17
Why Counties Matter

Throughout most of Texas history the question "why counties matter" would be silly but today the average citizen underestimates the importance of county government because the federal government is so ubiquitous, state government is more newsworthy than we want it to be, and we are mostly urban dwellers where city government and school districts are more visible—and collect more taxes.  Yet until well into the 20th Century, the county was the government that most mattered for most people.  When a person was born (1873-1876 and from 1903 forward) the county clerk recorded the event.1  The county school superintendent (often in the person of the county judge) oversaw his or her education except for the few who lived in cities or attended parochial schools.  Upon reaching 21 years of age most men were required to work without pay on the county roads 5 days a year (8 if they failed to pay the poll tax) until their 46th birthday.  When a couple married the county clerk issued the license and often a justice of the peace performed the ceremony.  Land transactions were recorded in the deed records and noted by the tax assessor.  When they took out a loan on their crops or personal property the terms were recorded in the chattel mortgage record. 

Most civil disputes were adjudicated by the local justice of the peace or, if it was a more serious matter, in the county or district court at the county courthouse.  If a person ran afoul of a criminal law the constable or sheriff would investigate and make the arrest.  Justices of the peace handled most of the routine cases but the county or district judge would preside over more serious matters in the county courthouse.  The constable or the sheriff would execute any sentence from collecting a fine to hanging the condemned.

Throughout a man's life (women were pretty much ignored) the county could call him out to work on the roads (as noted above), act as a juror, serve on a jury of view to lay out roads, judge elections, etc.  And when death came, irrespective of gender, the county judge would probate the estate and after 1903 the county clerk would enter the name into the death register.

The most prominent building in a community was inevitably the county courthouse (usually with doors on all four sides so that one could approach justice from any direction).  Although some counties constructed jails before the courthouse, jails were less impressive but still important monuments to a community's wealth, and dedication to the peace and dignity.  Architecturally they were roughly comparable with the mid-size churches, schools, and stores. 

Counties also collected taxes, educated children, and provided welfare to the indigent by direct appropriations or through poor houses and orphanages.  When the times or the Legislature called for it, they also took censuses,2 provided for the public defense, and issued circulating money.3

Contrast this with the average person's relations with the federal and state government.  Unless one lived in a territory or near a federal installation the only national officials regularly encountered were the post master (often the proprietor of the local general store) and, once a decade, the census taker.  For much of the 19th century most of the money in circulation was often issued by some authority other than the U. S. Government—private banks for currency or foreign governments for specie.  Indeed in 1845 Dr. John Leonard Riddell, melter and refiner of the U. S. Mint in New Orleans wrote "More than 90 per cent. of the Dollars in general circulation in the country, bear the Mexican stamp."4

Republic of Texas and, subsequently, state officials were not much more common.  Although district court personnel were (and are) technically state officials, they were elected and officed in the courthouse.  Austin ran the eleemosynary institutions, a few colleges after 1876, and the prison system.  It has usually had a hand full of Rangers for trouble shooting and during Reconstruction a strong militia but until well into the 20th Century most officials were in Austin.

Even though county government is not as high profile as it once was, it is still relevant.  The sheriff and constables still enforce the law.  The county clerk still the recorder for the most important public records of our lives.  Justice is still dispensed in the courthouses and the offices of the justices of the peace.  And the tax assessor collector still collects property taxes, registers voters, and, now, automobiles.

 

Footnotes 

1Sometimes a justice of the peace or a city secretary was the registrar of vital statistics, but it was usually the county clerk.   

2Texas required county tax assessor/collectors to take censuses is 1847, 1851, and 1858 but only a few have survived.  I identified the returns of the 1847 Grimes County census in the RHRD holdings at Sam Houston State University and the 1858 Austin County Census in the County Clerk's office and it is now microfilmed and available through the State Archives.

More systematically, Scholastic Censuses (of school age children) were taken periodically from 1854 to the 1880's when it became an annual event until 1970.  Initially to equitably divide the available school fund, long after that money was spent the surviving census cards and consolidated rolls have value to document family history and, more critically for our most under-documented citizens, prove birth facts required to prove immigration status, for the issuance of delayed birth certificates and to qualify for Social Security and other retirement benefits. 

It is a mystery of what happened to the Scholastic Censuses for Harris County.  Houston ISD has them from 1925 but no other agency seems to have any.  They should be at the Harris County Department of Education (HCDE) but when I inquired about them in the early 1980's I ran into a dead end.  Dennis McGuire also was unable to find out anything.  When HCDE hired a Records Manager, Adam Feldman, he promised to get to the bottom of the mystery but later reported that coudl learn nothing. Their fate or whereabouts remain a mystery. 

3Bob Medlar Texas Obsolete Notes and Scrip, San Antonio:  Society of Paper Money Collectors, 1968.  During the Civil War at least 86 Texas counties issued scrip (a.k.a. shinplasters) but county warrants (similar to a check but could not be redeemed for cash until the county treasurer actually had money on hand) circulated at a discount until well into the 20th Century.

4John Leonard Riddell Monograph of the Silver Dollar, Good and Bad, New Orleans: 1845, Plate 120. If this was so in the United States, it was even more so for Texas which was even nearer Mexico and in 1845 was still a Republic.  Mexican coins remained in circulation long afterwards.  When I was working as a field archivist for the State Library I inventoried a records storage room in the Austin County Courthouse and found an envelope containing money that a justice of the peace had left with the county treasurer during the 1880's.  Writing on the envelope explained that the judge had decided a civil suit and collected the $1.50 judgment but could not find the plaintiff.  County Judge Leroy Grebe, a commissioner, and I opened it to find an U. S. half dollar and a Mexican 8-reale coin. 

Dec 16
The Availability of Public Records--Not a New Problem

​The Principle of Availability (An organization shall maintain records and information in a manner that ensures timely, efficient, and accurate retrieval of needed information) is one of ARMA International's Generally Accepted Recordkeeping Principles. The availability of records has long been a sore point as is evidenced by:

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

Dec 16
Records Availability and Information Systems

​The Principle of Availability (An organization shall maintain records and information in a manner that ensures timely, efficient, and accurate retrieval of needed information) is one of ARMA International's Generally Accepted Recordkeeping Principles. Good systems, be they electronic or manual, facilitate the Principle of Availability. As for bad systems....

MOOER'S LAW

An information retrieval system will tend not to be used whenever it is more painful and troublesome for a customer to have information than for him not to have it.

Calvin Mooer, 1959

PEMBERTON'S COROLLARY

The more difficult and time consuming it is for a customer to use an information system, the less likely it is that he will use that information system.

J. Michael Pemberton,1989

Dec 15
What is Records Management?

Records management is the blind men's elephant—what you think it is depends upon part you encountered and what that was largely depends upon when you encountered it.

State law provides: "Records management" means the application of management techniques to the creation, use, maintenance, retention, preservation, and disposal of records for the purposes of reducing the costs and improving the efficiency of recordkeeping.  The term includes the development of records control schedules, the management of filing and information retrieval systems, the protection of essential and permanent records, the economical and space-effective storage of inactive records, control over the creation and distribution of forms, reports, and correspondence, and the management of micrographics and electronic and other records storage systems.

Some decades ago records management was commonly described as "Getting the right information to the right person at the right time as efficiently as possible." Those were the days in which records managers concentrated on filing systems and components and computers created a few records but were unable to maintain them. Computer assisted retrieval of microfilm images was the height of information technology.

Today, technology is more capable of creating, distributing, and storing information than manual systems ever were.

Today's records management buzzword word is "Information Governance," a term that wasn't even included in the best records and information glossary in 2005.

Records Blog