What to keep? What to trash?

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 6, 2002

Several years ago I was managing editor of the Times-West Virginian in Fairmont, W.Va. One day one of our reporters, who happened to be into genealogy, overheard some folks around the county commission office talking about some records being destroyed.

The records had been housed in an old city-owned building that had been targeted for destruction. Poking around, she learned that someone had asked one of the commissioners what they should do with the stuff that was in the building. Knowing that the records had been stored there for decades upon decades and that nobody he knew of had every looked at them, the commissioner told them to haul it to the dump.

It turns out the records included deeds, marriage licenses, and tax records that dated back to the early 19th-century.

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Naturally, we ran a story with a big, sensational headline that a treasure trove of records had been discarded.

The outcry was unbelievable. We logged some 250 e-mails the first week alone from genealogy enthusiasts throughout the world from people who had seen the story on the Internet.

&uot;Appalling,&uot; &uot;shameful&uot; and &uot;tragic&uot; were the words that seemed to keep popping up.

The commissioner was defiant in the face of the criticism, saying it was just a bunch of old junk and that nobody ever looked at it anyway, etc. What a moron. His flippant attitude just brought down the genealogical wrath that much more..

&uot;Appalling,&uot; &uot;shameful&uot; and &uot;tragic&uot; quickly turned to &uot;arrogance,&uot; &uot;ignorance&uot; and &uot;recall.&uot;

This incident was brought to mind recently during our cleanup/move here at the News-Herald. We were in much the same situation: A decrepit building with mounds of old papers and boxes laying around that in the two years I’ve been here I’ve never seen anyone glance at.

Cleaning up half a century of packratism was a big job, and when you throw continuing to publish a daily newspaper into the mix, it was gargantuan. I decided early on that I had no time to go through boxes. &uot;Just get it the heck out of here,&uot; was what I told they guys who were assisting us.

Not a smart thing to do.

Among the things discarded was an old &uot;Employee of the Year&uot; plaque and several old press association awards that mostly former, but some current employees, had won.

&uot;We need to have a sense of history around this place,&uot; one of our employees said indignantly.

&uot;We’ve got Harvey,&uot; I said, referring to photographer Harvey White who’s about as old as dirt. &uot;I’m not throwing him out.&uot;

Mistake number two – being flippant.

Apparently, I didn’t learn anything from Fairmont.

Unlike Harvey, most of what was put in the dumpster was completely useless. However, there were some things discarded that we still used and had to replace and some to which long-time employees had a sentimental attachment. I should have considered their feelings before acting. I was guilty of being unsympathetic and needlessly caused some good people heartache.

While I regret that, at least we’ve now got a clean, considerably less cluttered, place to work that I want to have photographed so I can show my bosses. Now, if I could only find Harvey.

Andy Prutsok is editor and publisher of the News-Herald.