History in Shambles
12/15/2009
When the Stadtarchiv Köln—City Archive of Cologne, Germany—collapsed March 3, two people died, surrounding buildings were irretrievably damaged and more than a thousand years of records were buried in rubble.
 
The 38-year-old archive building contained 65,000 documents, the oldest dating to 922. Holdings—more than 16 miles of files—included tens of thousands of maps, photos, posters and one-of-a-kind artifacts from the Middle Ages. The collection had outgrown the archive in 1996 and some material was removed for storage elsewhere. All told, it was valued at $500 million, according to the newspaper Die Welt.
 
Cologne’s historic records first found a place in city hall in 1406 and later withstood World War II with no losses. Their most recent home, officials say, fell into a crater created by work on a nearby subway line. After the building’s collapse, while emergency workers poured concrete to stabilize the building, volunteers attempted to save valuable documents, according to a city press release. A temporary roof was set up over the site to protect against rain. A small portion of the collection was in an unharmed part of the building.
 
Hamburg genealogist Andrea Bentschneider, who’s researched at the Cologne archives, describes its holdings as “gigantic.”
 
The collapse comes at an especially bad time, she says, because German privacy law changed to ease civil records access. The Cologne archive had just eliminated research restrictions on death records up to 1978, marriage records before 1928 and birth records before 1898. “We can only hope that these civil records as well as all other records were secured and saved on microfilm or a similar medium. Otherwise, 1,000 years of Cologne’s history may be lost forever,” Bentschneider says.
 
She can rest assured where certain records are concerned: According to Die Welt, a former city archives head says a large part of the archive’s pre-1945 files were microfilmed with backups stored in the Barbarastollen archive.
 
FamilySearch, the genealogy arm of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, microfilmed 171 reels of records from the Cologne archives back in 1984, says public affairs manager Paul Nauta. Those documents include:
Genealogy and coats of arms, 1350 to 1880
Tax lists, 1487 to 1703
Orphans house registers, 1592 to 1788
Soldier pay records, 1552 to 1613
Court records, inheritance and land,  1220 to 1798
Court minutes, 1413 to 1652
Town council minutes, 1440 to 1653
 
Archives staff issued an appeal for help from researchers with copies of records from the facility.
 
“This is one of the clarion calls for why preservation services offered by FamilySearch and other like organizations can be so critical,” Nauta says. “Most genealogy consumers are aware of the convenient access value, but the tragedy of the Cologne archive reiterates the value for preservation.”