One hundred years ago if you wanted to look up any sort of vital records, from births and deaths to marriages and property histories, oversized books filled with information on paper was all the county recorders had. Hennepin County still has its plat books, which are large, awkward, green-bound volumes that measure 31 by 26 inches and weigh 15 to 20 pounds each.
The county didn’t begin microfilming old documents until the 1960s. Electronic recordkeeping began in 1988, and since 1994, all document imaging has been in a digital format.
Now, Hennepin County will spend $2.7 million to digitize more than 24 million pages of records and marriage licenses dating back all the way to the 1850s. The information won’t be available on the internet to just anyone, however. The digitization is largely a move to smooth document tracking for Twin Cities real estate, legal and financial professionals who work with mortgages, property titles, easements and others. Lay people are welcome to use the digitized information at the county records office.
Professionals who work with land records will be able to search the records online from their offices for a subscription fee, which has yet to be set. In order to use the system, they'll need a property name or legal description to track a property. The documents will not be searchable by keywords.
The switch to digitization is expected to improve efficiency and turnaround time. The new system will allow users to go between documents that are related with a click. Digitization should also protect ancient, brittle paper documents and reduce the theft of legal and historical records.
The new project will convert records in five stages. Documents which date from 1901 that show details of land sales, such as deeds, mortgages and powers of attorney will be the first to be digitized. Certificates of title from 1901 to 1998 will follow. Land abstract documents from 1988 to 1994 are third in line. Fourth will be land abstract documents from 1930 to 1988.
Finally, Hennepin County's oldest records will be digitized last because they are used the least often. These oldest documents are probably the most historically significant, but they will also be the most challenging to preserve.
Much of the digitization is being done by AmCad, a firm with a technology conversion center in Illinois. Most of it will involve conversion of microfilm rather than original paper documents. Working with microfilm is easier, and the firm has technology to sharpen blurry or faded images.
The project is being funded with money from the fees people pay to file documents with the county. New, higher fees went into effect in counties around the state a few years ago after businesses that use land records pushed the Legislature to find ways to raise money for digitization.
The digitization process means big changes at the Hennepin County Government Center, where people who want to research land records now have to peruse microfilm stored in tape cases. The county has three copies of each tape: one available for public use, a master copy in the basement, and a copy stored in temperature-controlled underground salt mine in Kansas. Sometimes people walk off with the cartridges available to the public, requiring a trip to the basement for a new copy. Digitization will put an end to that problem.
Though all the records that are being converted are public and will be readily available at the government center, it is knot known at this time if the records will eventually be made available free to anyone over the Internet. Land documents sometimes contain information on divorces and other personal information. Some may object to having such details readily available to whomever may happen to find it on the Web. That policy decision has not yet been made, however, so there is no need to wonder about that just yet.
The process has been initiated. The first rolls of microfilm have been shipped off to Illinois for copying at the time of this writing. The entire job could take up to three years to complete.
Hennepin County will talk with state and county historical societies about the fate of the paper documents from the 19th and early 20th centuries. I’m sure many local historical societies would love to display some of those!