PARIS — The Oxford County Registry of Deeds stands mostly empty, but not idle.

The metal shelves containing the recorded history of land ownership over the past 209 years are unattended; the climate-controlled room is occupied by only the register and a small staff. But across the country — and maybe the world — unseen hands are perusing the county’s deeds online.

The digitalization and online accessibility of the county’s documents has signaled a physical exodus from the registry’s room, nestled sleepily behind a thick wooden door in the county courthouse on Western Avenue.

“This place used to be a bustling metropolis, with standing-room only,” said county Register of Deeds Patricia Shearman.

Computers and other devices have changed how users access the registry; anyone with an Internet connection can access records from a neon-lit screen, which cuts down on the time and expense of traveling from far-flung corners of the county to Paris.

But as the race to scan documents tries to meet demand, a reciprocal effect is taking place — the county stopped printing new paper deed books in 2006, and with that move, a new problem has arisen.

Every land transfer, lien, mortgage or set of plans has been copied at the registry since the county was carved out of York County in 1805, back when Maine was still the northern portion of Massachusetts. In order to access older records pertaining to Oxford County, researchers — from historic novelists, to surveyors and lawyers — have to travel to Southern Maine or Massachusetts.

Lately, documents have been scanned onto a computer onsite and imprinted onto microfilm, rated to last for 500 years. The original paperwork is then handed back to the title owner. However, a problem — known as digital degradation — has arisen, where the viewable documents are only legible as the original scan, be they from 1903 or 1993. Shearman has found some of these documents to be lacking in quality, and she suspects there are untold amounts more.

Shearman stumbled onto the problem while looking into some 1,400 plans — from roadwork to subdivision construction — stored on a polyester-like material. The registry used to do microfilm imprinting onsite, but now outsources it to the same company which hosts its searchable database. She suspects that database is generated from a backup bank of images copied from the original microfilm, which need to be rescanned. One plan shown had smudged numbers, which could prove vital to a surveyor staking out a subdivision.

The problem is, there’s no emerging pattern alerting staff where they should begin their search. Without narrowing down which decade — or century — Shearman and crew are painstakingly searching through each copy by hand.

Another issue is money. Restoring plans can cost a few hundred dollars each. Luckily, the county has been amassing capital partitioned from a surcharge fee on each recorded document to fund the project. There’s no time estimate for how long the project may take, as there’s no complete tally of the nearly 20,000 documents hosted online, between the county’s east and west division, that shows which documents need repairs.

Every year, the registry grows by some 100 new plans.

The process is laborious and full of surprises as the years give up their secrets: Next to plastic-bound books are crumbling leather tomes, some of which have hand-drawn and colored maps, outlining the first markers laid in the county.

For Shearman, the topic touches on a larger question of record management debated among preservationists: When, if ever, will physical copies no longer be needed?

“It’s a tree with many branches,” Shearman said.

For her, it’s an unequivocal “never.”

Physical copies are a three-pronged assault on the loss on information. According to Shearman, traditional recording methods are still relevant in an age that’s going paperless; but, with digital degradation, a need for quality originals is paramount.

“You have to be a steward of history and a futurist all at once,” she said. “This data is an asset.”

Changing technology places a burden on obtaining a high-quality original image. Documents saved to servers evolve every decade, and underlying problems can exasperate the replication process.

The quality-control project being undertaken may require her to recall microfilm from the mountain fortress it’s currently stored in. Every month, the county sends documents to Iron Mountain Corporation in Boyers, Penn., a records facility several hundred feet below the surface in an old limestone mine in a rural corner on the state. The highly-secured facility stores everything from government data to patents.

The microfilms may be returning to Maine. While they are now safe, as an archivist, Shearman worries about not being able to readily inspect the microfilms’ condition. Degrading microfilm, she said, gives off a vinegar smell, and so efforts are underway to transport them to storage at the Maine State Archives in Augusta so that they can be closely monitored.

“In the world of historic preservation, you have to know old methods,” she said. “You want to make sure you’re not just buying software to put things up online.”

It’s unlikely the registry will give up on those methods anytime soon.

“We’re almost done using the typewriter,” Shearman joked.


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