Rebuilding in the Gulf

Article excerpt

TEN EMERGENCY GRANTS OF UP TO $30,000 each have been awarded to restore hurricane-damaged collections in the Gulf Coast States. The collections range from rare sixteenth-century bibles at the Notre Dame Seminary Library in New Orleans to regional twentieth-century art at William Carey College in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The grants are part of a $ I million fund that NEH has made available.

One grant is helping the New Orleans Notarial Archives recover following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in August. During the hurricane, "documents for legal use were the ones damaged," says archivist Ann Wakefield. Without the acts of sale, property transfers will be interrupted, and development cannot move forward. "The chain of ownership of every building in New Orleans can be traced through the textual records of the Notarial Archives."

The archives hold forty million pages of documents dating from 1734. The archives' documents include records of property sales, marriage contracts, wills, building contracts, and acts of incorporation. These agreements are part of French and Spanish civil law, which is distinctly different from English law. Notaries were not advocates. "They served as impartial observers to agreements between parties and formalized those agreements," says Wakefield. "The papers they created could serve as primary evidence in court."

Contemporary records were filed in the Civil District Courthouse and sustained greater damage. Twelve thousand of sixty thousand volumes were soaked.

"It took three days to pump out the water and three more days to get the books out," says Wakefield. The worst of the volumes were frozen and sent to Chicago for treatment; the rest went to a climate-controlled ballroom at the New Orleans Convention Center.

The windows had blown out and everything was exposed to the elements in the Research Center, which holds older records. To protect the materials-among them drawings by nineteenth- century civil engineers and architects, records pertaining to the French and Spanish periods and the Civil War, and reports of returning sea captains-air had to be pumped in that was 20 percent humidity.

"As soon as the documents were stable, I felt like we had won the battle," says Wakefield. …