History's People: Visionary's Created the Chester County Archives

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Author: 
Rob Lukens, Ph.D.
Publication: 
Originally Published in the Daily Local News
Release Date: 
August 23, 2012

Visionaries Created the Chester County Archives

On August 27, 2012, the county and region will celebrate thirty years of the Chester County Archives. The archives, housed in the Government Services Center, is administered by the Chester County Historical Society (CCHS). The collection contains government records that document over 300 years of county history. Without the efforts of many dynamic people, those records undoubtedly would have all but disappeared and been forgotten.

Long-time CCHS Librarian Dorothy Beaumont Lapp was largely responsible for saving and collecting scattered archival materials that were at risk for total loss.  Lapp, a Willistown Township native born in 1901, graduated from Swarthmore College in 1924 with a degree in history. She taught at area schools before moving to New York City to work in historical research.  In 1937, she began an illustrious 39-year career as an employee of the Chester County Historical Society. As Librarian, she was charged with overseeing a rapidly expanding collection of archival documents and artifacts.

During her nearly 40 years working for the Historical Society, Lapp foresaw the importance of records such as court dockets, taxes, and poorhouse records.  In the mid-20th century, unlike today, preserving these critical records was not a given. Lapp was an advocate who stayed in touch with county offices, gathering documents up to 300-years-old together at CCHS. 

In 1975, Rosemary Philips took the helm at CCHS's library and Dorothy retired shortly thereafter.  Philips, who was head of Temple University's Paley Library, was the first professionally-trained librarian at CCHS. She was immediately struck by a welling problem. The Historical Society's collection of county materials - saved by Dorothy - was growing and taking up significant space, time, and money to manage. Philips approached the county commissioners to figure out a long-term solution to care for these items.

Over the next several years, a series of arrangements evolved to address the problem. First, the county commissioners appointed the Historical Society as the "Archivist" of the collection through an official county appointment.  A Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) grant allowed CCHS to hire Jack McCarthy as the archivist in 1980 to begin managing the body of records.

The problem persisted, however - that there was no mechanism to provide access to, collect and organize the records from county offices.  When researchers wanted to see items they either had to retrieve them from CCHS or visit individual county offices.

A group that included County Commissioners Earl Baker, Robert J. Thompson, and Patrick O'Donnell, as well as newly appointed CCHS Executive Director Roland Woodward devised a solution. These individuals, who regularly met to plan the county's tricentennial celebration, formed a unique private/public partnership by creating the new Archives department of the County.  The department was housed in the basement of the old Mosteller Building, part of the courthouse complex, and was overseen by McCarthy. Under the terms of this unique relationship, CCHS provided the professional staff to oversee the county's archives in a county facility.  The CCHS Board of Trustees, led at the time by Charles Soltis, approved this arrangement and a formal ceremony took place on August 27, 1982 in the county courthouse.  In 1985 the Archives added records management and microfilming to its responsibilities and the department was renamed Archives and Records Services.  

According to Woodward, "The entity itself largely came into being because the commissioners wanted to solve a problem." As an extension of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, county government is responsible for saving and providing access to county records. Without a central repository, there was no regularity to preserving or providing access to the records. "At the time," Woodward remarks, "the Commonwealth considered the partnership a model arrangement for other counties to imitate."

The facility was named the Dorothy B. Lapp Research Center in honor of Lapp's extraordinary efforts.  As Philips explains, "Dorothy was the foundation and that's why the archives was named after her." 

If Lapp was the workhorse of the archives Lucy Simler was the historian who put the pieces together into brilliantly written histories. As described by the department’s current director Laurie Rofini, Simler "was the bridge" between Lapp's collecting passions and the research world.

Lucile Lewis Simler, a Bryn Mawr College graduate, held an M.Ed. in history and math from the College of Saint Thomas. Although she lived in St. Paul, where her husband was a professor of economics at the University of Minnesota, Simler spent most summers working in the Chester County Archives. By working intensively with the records and familiarizing herself with eighteenth-century laws, she was able to discern how the records went together and what stories they could tell. 

In the 1980s, Simler began publishing her work in respected historical journals, such as the William and Mary Quarterly and Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. She was part of a new focus on social history - or history from the "bottom up" - which highlighted the lives of everyday people.

Simler's particular approach was to mine the archives for data through econometrics - data crunching to determine quantitative patterns which uncovered new information about the past. For instance, by combining information from county records such as taxes and court proceedings with manuscripts such as account books at the Historical Society she demonstrated how landless workers – “cottagers” – were critical to the economic development of southeastern Pennsylvania. She always supplemented these findings with gracefully written qualitative stories that brought her statistical tables to life. 

Rutgers Professor of History Paul G. E. Clemens, who co-authored two essays with Simler, noted that “Lucy's work began in an era when collecting social and economic history was done on note cards and spreadsheets, and ended in the era of computers and online databases. She left behind materials that will help others access the records at the Archives.”

Archives Director Laurie Rofini notes that in addition to its relatively few gaps, another of the collection’s strengths is its coverage.  Everyday people showed up in county records from the 1700s and the 1800s, regardless of their ability to write or whether they owned property.

Many historians have used the Archives and it is widely regarded as among the most complete and significant collections of county records in the United States.  As explained by Professor  Clemens, "the Chester County Archives and the Chester County Historical Society together contain one of the most complete and valuable set of local records for all of the eighteenth-century American colonies." James Merrell, the Lucy Maynard Salmon Professor of History at Vassar College, calls the Archives "among the best-organized and best-run" he's encountered, "and by far the best of the county or town-level archives" he's visited.

And it all started with the resolve of Dorothy Lapp, slowly and carefully saving Chester County's past in archival form.

Hundreds of researchers every year, from genealogists and historic house owners to historians and attorneys use the records to investigate the past and better understand the present.  For more information, visit http://chesco.org/archives.

Caption (below): Librarian Dorothy Lapp worked at the Chester County Historical Society from 1937 and 1976, dedicating much of her time and energy to preserve the County's archives.

Caption (below): Historian Lucy Simler spend nearly every summer of the 1980s and 1990s conducting extensive research in the Chester County Archives.