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Preserving history

Town Clerk works to digitize public records

NEWFANE—For the last five years, Town Clerk Gloria Cristelli and her assistant, Dedra Dunham, have been trying to preserve Newfane’s history, and its integrity in maintaining land records, one document at a time.

They are using modern technology to do it.

“There’s no state mandate to have redundancy” in records, Cristelli said, meaning a town is allowed to keep only one set of land records, such as mortgages, deeds, and court decrees, and those are typically on paper.

Cristelli showed a visitor the document that created Newfane: when Luke Knowlton signed over 22,000 acres of land to form the township, on May 12, 1772.

It was not a copy, but rather was the actual piece of paper signed 243 years ago. It sits in a red, leather-bound book in the town vault behind Cristelli’s office, along with all the other books holding Newfane’s land-records history, arranged in chronological order.

There are currently 135 of those books, and Cristelli said they are “only 50 pages or so from starting book 136."

In the event of a flood or extended fire, all those books, all those land records, could disappear. Cristelli said the vault’s door protects against fire, but only for seven hours of continuous burning.

The more common risk to public records, and one that is already happening, is the writing on these documents simply vanishes as if written with invisible ink. It’s no practical joke — it’s degradation to the ink, caused by a lack of climate control in the documents’ storage units.

The first 13 books of Newfane’s land records, including the first book, with Knowlton’s deed, are the only copies that exist anywhere, in any form.

Books 14 to 51 are copied onto microfilm, and the state keeps those, Cristelli said.

But, who has a microfilm reader? Also, if not stored in special containers, those microfilms — just like paper — are subject to decomposition, rendering them useless.

The solution to a 243-year-old problem? Computers.

When Cristelli took office in 2009, she said she “inherited 2,600 un- or partially-recorded documents,” with little guidance on how to preserve them.

Within about a year of becoming Town Clerk, she found her answer when she attended a meeting in Dummerston with companies that were starting to work with Vermont towns to digitize their public records. These companies set up computer programs in which to enter documents.

The firm that Cristelli thought provided the best match for Newfane’s needs was Cott Systems, based in Columbus, Ohio.

According to its website, Cott, in the business of public records management since 1888, “provides local government offices with traditional, locally-deployed land records and case management systems along with forward-thinking, cloud-based hosted solutions that provide disaster preparedness, business continuity and 24/7 constituent access via eRecording, eFiling, eCommerce and WebHosting."

Cristelli said her office has been using Cott to maintain its public records since 2010. Every time a document comes in — for example, a copy of a new mortgage, sent by a bank — Cristelli or her assistant Dedra Dunham scans it into the computer, enters some data, and the program creates a file for the document and indexes it.

Newfane’s files are stored in “clouds” — online data repositories — whose physical locations are in three separate servers in Ohio, Cristelli said, but she and her staff have full access to them in the Town Clerk’s office.

“A title searcher would never have to touch the pages in the book,” Cristelli said — the files could be accessed online. The actual book could stay in the vault, where it can remain protected from oils from the skin and light, which degrade the ink and paper.

In addition to entering new, incoming land records, Cristelli and Dunham have been working on the much larger project: entering all of the old town records, going back to the mid-1700s.

Dunham is currently indexing book 82.

Cristelli said a Cott employee recently came to her office and scanned and entered the information from books 52 through 83, amounting to “about 17,000 pages,” she said. It took him less than three hours. He also gave Cristelli that data on microfilm, so “we have double-redundancy” for those documents.

Moving forward, Cristelli said one of her goals is to “at least get the first 13 books on microfilm,” and get them in climate-controlled storage.

She also pointed out what she calls “the book of horrors” — not because of the nature of its contents — it holds attachments to land records — but because it is a loosely-arranged mass of barely-organized sheets of paper. To restore that, Cristelli said, will cost “a few thousand dollars."

Lest anyone believe 200-year-old records are irrelevant, Cristelli shared this story: “In the last month, two surveyors came in to see records in book three."

The records in book three are from the early-1800s.

“It’s not as though these [records] aren’t used,” Cristelli said.

She said the monthly fees the town pays Cott, and any other expenditures related to preserving these documents, are worth it.

“If the land records of Newfane get destroyed, we will not need a treasurer, a selectboard, or listers,” Cristelli said, because “we would have no proof [anyone] owns that property.“

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Originally published in The Commons issue #336 (Wednesday, December 16, 2015). This story appeared on page D1.

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