Preservation

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way: Efforts to Preserve Historic Philly Documents Begin

January 18, 2024 | by Kyle Bagenstose

This photo from 2013 shows stacks of old volumes of wills being stored in the basement of City Hall. | Photo: Bradley Maule

Decaying in the attic of Philadelphia City Hall are mountains of historical legal wills, marriage licenses, and similar documents, some dating back four centuries and bearing marquee names from the Colonial era.

There are also some in the basement and many more in a giant warehouse at 6th and Spring Garden Streets. As chronicled by The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Inga Saffron, who was granted access to some of these spaces for a 2020 column, the haphazard storage of these city treasures is a historian’s worst nightmare. “It’s not just Philly’s historic buildings that are crumbling,” the article’s headline warned. “So are its historic records.”

Yet, in a glimmer of hope for a better future, some of these documents are not currently within the city’s confines. Instead, they are in Dallas, Texas, Essex, Vermont, and Greensboro, North Carolina, where a records management company called Kofile is working to restore their integrity. Some documents are having problematic early-era lamination removed. Others, after having crumbled like potato chips over centuries, are being carefully pieced back together. Those in the worst condition, beyond hope of saving, are at least being scanned to create a digital version with as much legibility as possible, explained Ryan Chapman, a regional account executive with Kofile.

“A lot of these records are to the point where they’re 300, close to 400 years old,” Chapman said. “We are trying to preserve these original documents, and scan them, so that no one any longer has to touch them.”

But it is entirely unclear just how many documents will be saved. Chapman said Kofile has a limited agreement with the City of Philadelphia and its Register of Wills, the office tasked with maintaining much of the City’s voluminous historic legal documents. Flying under the radar of the tumultuous administration of former Register Tracey Gordon, who recently left office after a four-year term that ended with a slew of misconduct allegations, was what appears to be the office’s first serious effort in living memory at preserving its disintegrating documents.

Details from the City’s end are scant. Messages left with staff of the newly-elected Register of Wills, John Sabatina, went unreturned. But Gordon held a press conference about the effort in early December as one of her last public acts following the issuance of an RFP by her office last March. Most important is confirmation from Chapman himself, who said the company was issued a $300,000 contract to preserve a first batch of documents.

While that might sound like a decent chunk of change, Chapman said it ultimately won’t go very far in preserving and digitizing what he thinks could be billions of documents in the City’s possession. It is currently unclear if Sabatina or any other boosters within City government have an appetite for more.

A Good Deed

John P. Sabatina was sworn in as the new Register of Wills in January. During his campaign last year he stated that preserving and digitizing historic documents will be a priority during his time in office, an effort initiated by his predecessor Tracey Gordon. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Whatever one’s opinion of Gordon is, at least some of those who appreciate the city’s past also appreciated her efforts to secure its historical documents. Judith Robinson, a real estate broker and North Philadelphia community activist who also dabbles in historic preservation and tours, was one of those to speak at the December 6 Register of Wills press conference where the digitization effort was discussed.

Robinson said her initial interest in the City’s records was sparked when she learned that Stephen Girard, the early American tycoon and slaveholder whose name lives on through the eponymous avenue and Girard College, made reference to “my Black woman Hannah” in his will. “I never heard of the story of Hannah. It got me so excited. I said, ‘I must know who this woman is,’” Robinson retold at the press conference.

Through further research, Robinson learned that Hannah had originally been the slave of Girard’s brother, Jean, who impregnated her while living in Louisiana. Hannah would eventually end up in Philadelphia with Stephen Girard, and was a part of his life through to his deathbed, Robinson explained.

In an interview, Robinson said she approached Gordon early in her tenure to tell her the story of Hannah and other examples of the importance of the documents under the care of her office. After Gordon followed through by initiating the contract with Kofile, Robinson said she was happy to play a role in helping the first Black woman Register of Wills in Philadelphia’s history also launch a potentially historic effort to preserve the City’s documents. “I’m proud to be a small part of it,” said Robinson.

At the December press conference, Gordon similarly talked in historic terms. “Four years ago… I learned that it is the duty of the Register of Wills to protect these records into perpetuity,” Gordon said. “And these are the first steps.”

The Process of Preservation

A conservator at Kofile’s headquarters in Dallas, Texas prepares a historic Philadelphia document for preservation and digitization. | Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Register of Wills

Chapman, who is personally based in Albany, New York, said he has visited Philadelphia on several occasions since the contract was signed to help plan which of the City’s many documents would be preserved and begin the process. He was struck by the sheer number of documents in need of preservation within the Register of Wills’ libraries, let alone those housed by other City offices.

“There are many billions of documents within the City of Philadelphia,” Chapman said. “There are documents all the way back to the 1640s.”

Chapman explained that he and Register of Wills staff came up with a triage of sorts. They would start by preserving and digitizing indices, or large master lists recording all of the documents in the Register of Wills’ possession. Such documents are crucial since they are the roadmaps to finding other documents, such as when a family member of a deceased Philadelphian calls to obtain records or a historian comes in with a research request. By creating searchable digital copies of the indices, the documents they reference should be able to be identified and located more easily.

Also a top priority for preservation are some of the office’s oldest and most historically important documents. Chapman said documents created before 1990 were all chemically acidic. With the age of many documents now counted in centuries, that greatly imperils their existence. Some documents, Chapman explained, are in hundreds of pieces and require careful reconstruction.

Chapman said he’s been amazed and moved by some of the documents Kofile has worked on so far. “Almost every will you look at from the beginning times of Philadelphia, there’s a foundation named after them, streets named after them,” Chapman said, adding Kofile has worked on the wills of several members of Benjamin Franklin’s family. “Every name is pretty relevant as we begin this process.”

But the importance of documents are not just relegated to Colonial history. Chapman said he was chilled to discover the symbols of Nazi Germany on paperwork the party delivered to the City in the lead up to World War II. He explained there are also documents important in telling the history of the Civil Rights era, the Underground Railroad, and even the simple existence of enslaved peoples in the city.

“You will see in a will: tablecloth, silverware, and all these valuable belongings. Then you’ll see, ‘a slave boy named Brandon.’ Or just, ‘a slave girl,’” Chapman said. “So this is the only written record of this person ever existing.”

It is unclear to Chapman how much appetite for further work exists. He said he has not yet had any contact with Sabatina and the new administration. However, he doesn’t place too much weight on that fact, as it is often his experience that newly elected officials may take months to settle in before having the bandwidth to establish a relationship.

Sabatina told multiple Philadelphia media outlets during his campaign that digitization of historical documents would be a priority under his tenure. Chapman said he is hopeful there will be more to come. “It’s just essential that Philadelphia and the Register of Wills get behind this and try to save these documents.”



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About the Author

Kyle Bagenstose is an independent journalist based in East Mt. Airy. Previously with USA Today, he writes primarily about environmental and urban topics.

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