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NMSU archivist helps save Hatch historical records

An archivist from the New Mexico State University Library is helping the village of Hatch preserve much of its history after this month's flooding.

Steve Hussman, New Mexico State University department head of archives and special collections, carefully separates frozen pages of historical records from Hatch, N.M. An August 2006 flood soaked the documents which had to be frozen and then air dried to be preserved. (NMSU photo by Ben La Marca)

ussman, department head of archives and special collections in the University Library, responded to the village's plight after receiving calls from several local agencies that were concerned about saving important historical documents trapped in the floodwaters. He was finally connected to Kathy McConnell, the Hatch village clerk.

"She called me last Thursday (Aug. 17) and said, 'We've got water in here and we're concerned about what's going to happen with this material.' She said there was about three or four feet of water in the clerk's building," Hussman said.

He requested that the workers in Hatch remove the documents from the water and take them to a place where they could be frozen. The workers transported the historical records to a meat company where the documents were temporarily frozen. After that, the records were placed in plastic tubs and transported to the loading dock of the Branson Library on the NMSU campus.

Hussman took the tubs up to the archives section on the fourth floor of the library. He transferred the papers from the tubs to a large freezer and when the papers were fairly hard, he took them out of the freezer so they could dry by air.

"People may think that water-laden bound papers can be recovered, but that's true only if they are frozen first," Hussman said. "If they're not frozen, the pages will literally fuse together and it's very difficult, if not impossible, to separate the pages. If they're covered with too much water, sometimes the ink will start washing out. The other problem with wet papers that have not been frozen is that, when they're starting to dry, they will become gummy or tacky and you have to be careful, because as you're separating pages, they can tear."

Hussman worked with four containers, each one containing a volume of original town ordinances or resolutions. Once the papers have been dried and flattened, they will be transported back to Hatch.

The importance of preserving historical documents cannot be emphasized enough, Hussman said.

"While some people say they can rely on the institutional memory of one individual, what happens when that person dies?" Hussman asked. "I've seen too many cases where the thought of preserving something is an afterthought. People will say, 'We should have scanned this, we should have photocopied this, or we should have made a duplicate set of these and stored the originals offsite.' Once they're gone, though, they're gone."