State seeks to scan colonial records

“We’re in a race against time.” SUSAN MACLAY, executive director of the Louisiana State Museum Foundation

At the Old U.S. Mint in the French Quarter, records spanning from 1714 to 1803 are stacked in a vault impervious to water and fire. What the vault cannot stop is the ticking of time that unleashes the acidic nature of centuries-old ink. Holes are appearing in fragile records, robbing them of details about daily life in colonial Louisiana.

The documents chronicle slavery, shipwrecks, plantation sales and the dangers of signing contracts in the dark in the days before electricity.

A complaint filed in 1739 by Jean Joseph Le Kintrek — called Dupont — about a contract he entered into outside the glow of a burning candle is intact, although faded in spots.

Time has eaten right through other records. A large peephole exists in a record about a runaway slave who spent stolen cash on brandy.

“We’re in a race against time,” said Susan Maclay, executive director of the Louisiana State Museum Foundation, a support group for the State Museum.

Through a combination of private fundraising and a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, nearly $400,000 is in place to scan in the documents and create an online database.

The French Superior Council records from 1714 to 1769 have been scanned. Work is beginning on the Spanish judiciary records that began in 1769. More than 200,000 pages eventually will be online for scholars and family-tree enthusiasts.

However, more money is needed. A lot more. The list of needs is huge and ranges from translating the records into English to unraveling the sticky damage inflicted by a job-creation effort during the Great Depression.

Another $188,000 is needed to complete the digitization process.

A longer-term phase of the project will be to translate the records for those who don’t understand centuries-old French and Spanish. That will be expensive, with at least a $1 million price tag.

Museum officials also want to build an inhouse conservation lab to conserve documents. The lab would tackle the acidic ink as well as the harm unwittingly caused by the Works Progress Administration that President Franklin D. Roosevelt created to give the unemployed a paycheck during the 1930s.

One of the records’ biggest threats also arrived in the 1930s, when an engineer invented cellophane or “Scotch” tape. The WPA soon got to work taping together torn records from Louisiana’s colonial days.

Mark Tullos, the Louisiana State Museum’s director, said the tape must have seemed like a miracle solution for ripped pages. In reality, the tape is acidic, causing further deterioration.

Museum officials also need to spend money in the future on digitally scanning in an extensive map collection and conserving historic jazz instruments such as Louis Armstrong’s first trumpet.

“You have to be Rumpelstiltskin and turn straw into gold because money’s so limited,” Maclay said.

Documents already put online can be viewed at: http://cdm16313.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/search/collection/p15140coll60 or http://www.crt.state.la.us/museum/collections/historical_center/Colonial_Documents.aspx.

The records are just one piece of Louisiana’s history that is making its way to the Internet.

At www.sos.la.gov, the Secretary of State’s Office offers indexes for Confederate pension applications, vital records and passenger lists. LSU Libraries is digitizing historic newspapers. The list can be found at http://www.lib.lsu.edu/special/cc/dlnp/titleslist.html.

The French and Spanish colonial records at the Mint exist because the Louisiana Historical Society acquired them in the 1860s. Eventually they were placed on deposit with the Louisiana State Museum. At times the records scattered. Union soldiers scooped up some documents and took them to Wisconsin during the Civil War.

Hurricane Katrina forced the New Orleans documents’ evacuation to Baton Rouge.

Treating the taped areas is where the idea of an inhouse conservation lab comes in. It is very expensive to remove the tape’s traces.

“With close to a quarter-million documents in the collection, the conservation costs would be astronomical if outsourced to a private conservation lab. The Louisiana State Museum is seeking funding for the creation of a regional paper conservation lab located in the Mint,” said Greg Lambousy, director of collections for the Louisiana State Museum.

Tullos said historical preservation now is about conservation that will not have to be reversed — in other words, no more Scotch tape.

“The digitization is like freezing the document in time,” he said. “We have an incredible fascimile.”