One of the primary functions of county government in Missouri is the recording and archiving of all kinds of documents — thousands and thousands of documents often dating back a century or more.
In Nodaway County, much of the responsibility for carrying out that daunting task falls on the shoulders of Recorder of Deeds Sandy Smail, who started working in the recorder’s office in 1999 before winning election to the post in 2002.
Over the past 18 years, Smail has seen vast changes in the way documents are recorded and preserved.
When she first went to work for the county, paper was king, though microfilm was an established technology, and the idea of online access to deeds, mortgages, easement records, surveys and plat maps was starting to gain currency.
These days, nearly 700 of the more recent document books stored on the basement floor of the County Administration Center have been digitally copied and made available to the public via the Internet.
That effort, accomplished largely in house over a period of years, has created electronic access to records covering the 50 years between 1967 and the present.
Now, at a cost of about $17,000, Smail is moving forward with the digitalization of index books maintained by her office for the years 1845-2002.
These books don’t contain actual documents, but rather provide a record of what documents are on file and where they can be found.
Work to create the images began Wednesday and is being carried out by two two-person technical teams from U.S. Imaging, a company based in Saginaw, Michigan.
The teams work 24 hours a day in 12-hour shifts and expect to complete the Nodaway County project over the next couple of days.
Once the volumes are scanned, Smail said her goal is to have all of the indexes available online from the recorder’s homepage, accessible at no cost, at nodawaycountymo.us, by the end of the year.
A second initiative designed to keep recorder-archived public records in good shape and accessible will begin next month, Smail said, when another company is to begin restoring, and in some cases rebinding, the bulky index books themselves, a number of which are in rough shape after decades of storage and use.
While she sees maintaining paper records as important, Smail said her eventual goal, with the advent of digital archiving and continuing efforts to create backups on microfilm, is to reach a point where the repaired books will never have to be touched again unless there is some kind of catastrophic technology failure.
Though one big advantage of going digital is faster, more convenient access to information, Smail explained that getting as many records as possible online also makes sense from a preservation standpoint.
“Records preservation is part of our job (as a county recorder of deeds),” she said. “It’s what we’re supposed to be doing.”
In addition to the index book scanning project, Smail’s office has also received a state grant that will pay for about half of a new $12,000 microfilm scanner, reader and printer intended to replace an existing machine that has fallen into obsolescence.
Most people these days likely associate microfilm with the pre-Internet world of the 1960s and ’70s, but Smail said the medium remains the standard for records preservation, not least because, under proper storage conditions, film images have a projected shelf life of up to 500 years.
Expected to arrive sometime in July, the new machine will be capable of handling a number of microfilm formats.
Besides continuing to photograph yet-to-be microfilmed records extending past 2002, Smail said she would eventually like to re-shoot everything back to 1845, the year Nodaway County was established, since the quality of images produced with newer technology has markedly improved.