There are millions of historical documents that make up our heritage and that have been locked away behind bureaucratic structures and in largely inaccessible storage formats. Preservation is important, but access is as well. New digital technology is finally providing an easy, efficient and publicly accessible way to store and share this history.

When it comes to land ownership, all across the United States, local governments have been tracking that information, dating in some places all the way back to before the establishment of the original British colonies. Local governments today store billions of pages of documents that can establish the historical chain of land ownership from the first royal land grants up to the most recent home purchase in 2020. Theoretically, every square inch of land in the conterminous United States has recorded evidence of ownership like this.

The challenge is beyond pursing preservation. Up until the early 1900s, all of these documents were handwritten in cursive by registrars, recorders and county, city and town clerks. The advent of typed text has since ended that practice, but centuries’ worth of handwritten historical records written on fragile paper must be maintained by government employees.

Aside from the significant labor, storage and maintenance costs, interpreting and deciphering the information continues to be a challenge. It puts us at a risk of losing easy, sustainable and efficient access to a huge part of our nation’s history.

With technology today, it’s possible to bring modern transcription practices to bear on these handwritten documents. A land records management system (LMRS) can capture, store, manage, search and retrieve scanned and transcribed handwritten documents.  

The next step is the deciphering. Scanned images are physically read by technical specialists with knowledge, experience and expertise who decipher each word in the original handwritten document, which are then physically keyed into a text file. This process is human-centric. The LRMS gives the technical specialists the ability to view the typed text file next to a scanned image of the original, which can also be enhanced to improve readability.

Beyond making the data available to history buffs, researchers and genealogists, the transcription of historical land records helps to leverage the investment that land recorders have made on an ongoing basis to store, maintain and make those records available to the public.

Digital archiving continues to evolve with today’s emerging technologies and the desire to preserve.

Melody K. Smith

Sponsored by Data Harmony, a unit of Access Innovations, the world leader in indexing and making content findable.