Conducting Research Locally: Challenges & Opportunities

Tracking down records at the local level is an essential part of our strategy for many of the research cases we take on – from toxic tort and environmental litigation to legal questions emanating from mineral rights and land ownership issues. Local records can hold invaluable information when trying to piece together complex histories of contaminated industrial sites, military bases, public utilities, or other properties and waterways.

Maps and permit applications housed at a county clerk’s office might show when a new plant building was erected and specify the activities or operations that took place in it. A town’s or city’s council might have meeting minutes that capture approval for a certain entity to conduct an industrial process, to bury wastes, or to connect a sewer or dump to a local waterway. Inspections from fire departments might shed light on what operations or activities occurred at a site, the volume of wastes, raw materials or finished goods that were stored, handled or produced, and even emergency incidents that resulted in environmental harm, which may not have been documented at a higher government or corporate level.

  This sewer plan and others like it were obtained from a city archives collection. These plans helped us to understand the city approved changes and modifications to the Publicly Owned Treatment Works (POTW) that occurred over time. Please note that identifying information has been redacted by TRG.

This sewer plan and others like it were obtained from a city archives collection. These plans helped us to understand the city approved changes and modifications to the Publicly Owned Treatment Works (POTW) that occurred over time. Please note that identifying information has been redacted by TRG.

As essential as they are to our clients, however, local records are often the most problematic to unearth due to matters of scale and record keeping practices. Dozens of relevant record collections may be available at federal and state levels and therein hundreds or even thousands of pages of documents that we expertly weed through on behalf of our clients. At the higher levels, we search for the needle in the haystack. But finding the haystack is often the trickier aspect locally. An obvious reason for this is that there is just not as much documentation produced at the local level for a given entity in comparison to that at the federal and state levels. A corporation’s archive or a state or federal regulatory agency is more likely to produce a wealth of documentation pertaining to volumetric information about chemicals produced at an industrial site, for example.  Or, a regulatory agency will hold records documenting a military base’s compliance (or lack thereof) with state environmental laws over time. 

Another is that records at the local level are often dispersed among several, minimally-staffed offices that may have only recently instituted record keeping policies that are on par with today’s increasingly professionalized standards. Earlier this year, we conducted research into environmental issues stemming from the irrigation systems of a handful of golf courses in the Southeast. We had anticipated finding relevant records such as applications, permits, as-built drawings, and maps at one county public works department, but were told the location of such basic records was simply unknown due to negligence from decades past. On a separate matter, in a small town in upstate New York, a Deputy Fire Chief told us that it might take him two years or more to dig through pre-1960s fire alarm paper records.

Rural counties and small towns aren’t the only locales where we encounter such issues. Though we’ve never conducted research in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, we recently learned that its first archivist was appointed just two years ago. This was surprising given its sheer size and rich history – from its role in the French and Indian War as well as the Revolutionary War to its more recent, storied industrial past –  but as its archivist, Nicholas Hartley, explained to us, there was never a person or office mandated within the city’s charter to serve as the caretaker of its records. This oversight was further corrected in June with the passing of an ordinance that established a records management division. Hartley hopes to provide researchers with minimal access to processed historic city records by 2020.

  A view of the “City of Bridges,” Pittsburgh. Photo courtesy of Mingjun Liu from Unsplash.com.

A view of the “City of Bridges,” Pittsburgh. Photo courtesy of Mingjun Liu from Unsplash.com.

Taylor Research Group’s professional staff knows that there is a treasure trove of documentation at the local level in big cities like Pittsburgh, sparsely populated counties, and even small towns. It is often hidden in forgotten boxes, basements, or warehouses. When we encounter roadblocks to finding and accessing this documentation, we work closely with local officials, archivists, and record keepers in pursuit of our client’s research goals. In cases similar to those involving the rural New York fire department, we would offer to work our way through relevant records ourselves, which would most likely require us to submit a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request. In others, we would cast our research net wide by reaching out to often overlooked local libraries and historical societies. Libraries typically house a research room or section dedicated to preserving local history. Sometimes these include city directories and township maps; often times they include copies, whether paper or digitized, of local newspapers and publications or “vertical files” of such materials. Historical societies tend to have an assortment of potentially relevant records such as a local businesses’ records or the personal papers of a prominent local business person.  As an example, when trying to find information dating back to the 1800s pertaining to mineral rights and land ownership in a Pennsylvania county over the past year, we identified more than a dozen libraries and historical repositories that we were able to conduct research in to help us answer our client’s questions.

Contact us to learn more about how a strategy that incorporates research at the local level can yield pertinent documentation for your next legal case or historical inquiry.

*Note: It is a coincidence that we are publishing this post in the aftermath of the tragic events that occurred in Pittsburgh’s historic Squirrel Hill neighborhood last month. We offer our sympathies to the victims and their families, and grieve with the residents of Pittsburgh.