Porter County Recorder Chuck Harris looks through one of his office’s oldest documents, the first land deed from 1836, signed by the county recorder at the time, Cyrus Spurlock, a local minister. His official seal was the word “seal” with a drawn cloud circled around it. (Jerry Davich / Post-Tribune)
Porter County Recorder Chuck Harris looks through one of his office’s oldest documents, the first land deed from 1836, signed by the county recorder at the time, Cyrus Spurlock, a local minister. His official seal was the word “seal” with a drawn cloud circled around it. (Jerry Davich / Post-Tribune)
Could you imagine scanning, digitizing, organizing and indexing tens of thousands of recorded historical documents, some dating back to the early 1800s? This exhaustive project is now underway at the Porter County Recorder’s office, where I visited to watch it in action. Well, maybe action is the wrong word.

“It’s tedious,” said Rhonda Olson, project manager for U.S. Imaging, a firm that digitizes land records for current and future generations to access.

“Fun is another word,” one of her colleagues quipped.

Five workers from the Michigan-based firm are working around the clock — 24/7 every day in 12-hour shifts — while living out of a local hotel for the next couple of months.

“If we worked only a traditional eight-hour shift, this project would take three times longer,” said Olson, who’s worked 38 years for her company.

Its marketing motto: “Preserving the Irreplaceable.”

The crew wears plastic gloves to keep fingerprints and skin oils off the microfilm and plastic sleeves. The microfilm is in better shape than the books, which were created later, a process that still takes place in many recorder’s offices. The crew’s workload is extremely monotonous, including the detailed process to prepare old materials for the high-tech scanning process. (Watch a video of the project on my Facebook page, at www.facebook.com/JerDavich)

“Indiana uses these type of plastic sleeves for microfilm, which are thicker, so they don’t lay completely flat to scan. It can cause blurry images,” Olson explained without taking a break from her daunting workload. “What we are doing is replacing those jackets with these new jackets, which are thinner and cleaner for a crisp, clean image.”

I asked Olson how many plastic sleeves her crew will be replacing for this two-week part of the two-month project. She replied with a chuckle, “About 23,000.”

The overall project will cost the recorder’s office $676,000 — at no cost to taxpayers — instead coming from the office’s perpetuation fund. It was created for the sole purpose of preserving records and upgrading record keeping systems and equipment.

“Financing of this project comes from a fund that was statutorily created to perform projects just like this,” said former Porter County Recorder Jon Miller, who’s credited with the idea for this project. “The completion of this project will guarantee the perpetuity of all of the records in the county recorder’s office, along with providing complete remote access to all of those public records.”

The perpetuation fund’s unique characteristic is that it does not need county approval for appropriation as long as it is spent on preserving records. Also, unlike money in the county’s general fund, which is available for only one budgeted year, the perpetuation fund keeps growing each year.

“To be able to do this huge project without tapping into the county’s general fund is a testament to my predecessor,” said Porter County Recorder Chuck Harris. “This is his brainchild. I’m just carrying the torch that Jon Miller first lit.”

“This project has been planned for eight years, and the entire office is thrilled to have it finally become a reality. I’m incredibly proud of my staff to finally get this project completed,” Harris said while showing me around the office’s records room.

It oozes history dating back nearly two centuries with recorded deeds, liens, mortgages and other land records.

“Anybody can come back here. It’s open to the public,” Harris said. “We charge only for printed copies of documents.”

Harris pulled out one of his office’s oldest documents, the first land deed from 1836, signed by the county recorder at the time, Cyrus Spurlock, a local minister. His official seal was the word “seal” with a drawn cloud circled around it.

“This is back when things were done with a handshake and a signature,” Harris said.

Hundreds of books of officially recorded history in this room and other locations, will soon be scanned, digitized, indexed and uploaded to the internet and the digital cloud, one page at a time. If any of the original copies somehow get lost or destroyed, digital copies will always be accessible.

“By the end of September, everything you see in this office should be digitized. Eventually, anyone with an internet connection can pull up any of these books, page by page,” Harris said. “There’s a ton of work to be done here.”

Fidlar Technologies, the Iowa-based firm that has other vendor contracts with the county, landed the bid for the massive project. The company bills itself as the premier provider of technology and services for the management of public information across the U.S.

Before the Porter County Recorder’s office project hired out for this project, its employees were painstakingly scanning one page at a time, when time allowed. “It would have probably taken us 25 years to finish it,” Harris said.

The firm contracted U.S. Imaging to conduct this part of the project, using several large scanners to complete the job. The company has helped hundreds of counties digitize billions of historical pages without damage or loss. On-site teams carefully scans materials, using calibrated equipment specifically designed for each media type.

Its website states: “We have invested over $3 million into the very best equipment on the market, specifically designed to capture: bound books, mechanical books, photostat books, microfilm rolls, jackets/fiche, aperture cards, plats/drawings and letter-/legal-sized pages.”

Before the Porter County Recorder’s office project hired out for this project, its employees were painstakingly scanning one page at a time, when time allowed.

“It would have probably taken us 25 years to finish it,” Harris said.
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