Inside the vault: Take a peek inside one of the least known -- and most important -- rooms in Lowndes County

August 31, 2013 11:51:11 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


The vault. Just a few letters strung together that invoke connotations of something slightly secret, even mysterious. A sanctum where valuables are protected, where treasures are housed. Their contents are seldom intended for public eyes, but that is not the case with one particular vault in downtown Columbus, one most people are not even aware exists. 


"This is the keeper of Lowndes County's memory," said archivist Mona Vance, turning the three-pronged silver "knobs" that open row after row of compactible shelving in the Billups-Garth Archives vault at the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library. 


Each row holds reams of preserved primary source materials, the original documents and collections that will tell future generations who we were -- records of love, of births, of conflicts in court and judgments rendered, of lands purchased and final resting places. Of letters written, homes we lived in and businesses we frequented. Of men, women and children who were the faces and heartbeat of a county.  


The fireproof, climate-controlled vault made possible by a 1991 gift from the Snowdoun Foundation (now the Billups-Garth Foundation) houses the stories of Lowndes County and the city of Columbus, which was chartered in 1821.  


Much of the archived material is very old. 


"Some of the court records are like the 'Jerry Springer Show' of the 1800s," Vance smiled, standing next to thick, leather-bound volumes of court docket records that preserve, in hand-written detail, the squabbles of those who helped build the county. 


Other portions are from later years, like 1960s and 1970s photographs of the Columbus Swim Team, or civic club rosters and records.  


"History doesn't have to be 200 years old or even 100 years old -- history is happening today," stressed Vance, urging families, schools, churches and organizations to consider donating materials that might be relevant to county history. "If we don't save the 1980s, 1990s and today it won't be here for future generations." 


The scope of material stored in the vault is mind-boggling. Land and tax records, minutes from the Board of Police (now the Board of Supervisors) and oil paintings keep company with yesteryear's currency, glass negatives, a letter from Jefferson Davis, Market Street Festival posters and a traveling preacher's journal from the early 1800s. 


The organization is precise, the preservation exacting. 




Making it last 


"Paper takes on and releases moisture and can quickly deteriorate," explained Vance, pointing out the Liebert Datamate Machine that audibly runs 24/7 inside the vault, keeping the temperature at 65 degrees and humidity at 55 percent. Additional dehumidifiers run, too. The Liebert keeps air constantly moving and the vault mold-free. 


Acid-free, archival-quality folders hold many individual documents. 


"All paper is highly acidic and tends to turn yellow and fall apart," noted the archivist. The problem, ironically, is worse in modern papers than vintage ones, which contained more cotton rag content. "There were no copy machines back then; it was all hand-lettered, so if you could only make one document you wanted it on paper that would last." 


The Minter Polyester Encapsulator System at one end of the vault can chemically weld sheets of clear mylar together to form sealable transparent envelopes or pouches to hold documents. Vance believes it's the only such machine in a library archives in the state. 


Against one wall are shelves filled with images, transferred from old photographs onto acid-free paper. Boxes of glass negatives from the 1880s-1900 photographs by the late Marion Stark Gaines are nearby. Each glass plate is protected in a thick archival folding sleeve. Other collections of images and historical materials are in different stages of processing. 


Depending on the size of the collection, it can take up to a year to process, said Vance. Interns from Mississippi University for Women and other undergraduate and graduate programs often assist. 


Space is an ongoing issue for archives facilities.  


"I could quadruple our shelving and still not have enough space," Vance explained, adding that difficult decisions about what is relevant to history and what is not must be made every day.  




Seeking history 


Vance and archives staff member Bettye Brown welcome contributed material, especially more county African-American history. 


"It could be photos over the years inside and outside churches, a list of pastors, church history or event fliers," said Brown, who has been with the library about five and a half years. She is often the first face the public gets to know when bringing inquiries to the Local History Room. And there are plenty of inquiries. About 2,000 people enter the archives department every year. That does not include phone calls and emails. Inquiries come from not only almost every state in the U.S., but also from European countries and Canada. Many are from people researching their families. Others may be from experienced researchers, working on books or papers. 


The archives can perform one free hour of research for non-county residents; subsequent hours are $20 each. County residents are welcome to visit the Local History room and access materials.  


"We're constantly working on getting the intellectual access to people," said Vance. "We want people to see and utilize these records; that's why we keep them." 


Brown encouraged donations of material that may fill in gaps at the archives. Those include items related to schools (such as annuals) and businesses, including restaurants. 


"Someone comes in and wants to know about Ruth's that operated in downtown Columbus, and we have something on that," explained Brown, "but if they come in and ask about Andrews Shoe Store, we don't have that." she said, noting the archives relies on the community to build a thriving account of the making of Lowndes County, so that visitors to the vault in years to come understand the story. 


"We're extremely lucky to have an archives this size and caliber in a city the size of Columbus, and we'd like to send out a call to people to add to their own community's history," encouraged Vance. "Everything in the vault represents us all." 


Editor's note: For more information about making donations or requesting a vault tour, contact Vance at 662-329-5304.

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.