Tracy Zuver rolled the movable shelves past, revealing aisle upon aisle of permanent files stored in the Fulton County Courthouse. “And this is just a fraction of them,” he said.
As Clerk of Courts, Zuver thought it was time these and millions of other permanent files stored by the county in numerous locations are centralized in 21st Century fashion. The result is their ongoing, painstaking electronic transfer to computer servers, a project whose sheer enormity could push it over the next two decades.
It’s a cooperative effort by all of the county’s elected officials. Zuver said it will ultimately save Fulton County time and money, and preserve for posterity files dating from the present back to the 1800s.
“It’s very daunting,” he said. “This is huge. But it’s neat. There’s a lot of history, and we want to preserve the history.”
After assuming the Clerk of Courts office in 2017, Zuver took notice of the tedious process in place to find old case files requested by attorneys or various county departments. The information was usually scattered about in voluminous tomes and files that required a time-consuming search through records in both the courthouse and the county administration building.
“It could be just to pull out one piece of paper that maybe an attorney wanted. I thought, there’s got to be an easier way to do this,” Zuver said. “Do we keep adding more shelving – just tuck (files) in and tuck them in, or do we take the initiative to say, we’re in the computer age?”
He brought his idea of a centralized system to other county officials and to the county commissioners, all of whom embraced the plan. It would involve electronically scanning all permanent county records prior to 2010, since those after that date have already undergone the process. The task would fall on the county’s scanning department which is under the direction of Recorder Sandra Barber.
Called “content management,” it’s a slow, tedious task that involves going through every page of every individual file, removing staples that would interfere with the scanning process, and redacting personal information from the contents. It will also require slogging through the pages of large volumes dating back to the 1850s, where information was recorded by hand. Due to their fragile nature, it was prohibited to open some of the books until now.
The project involves all cases including criminal, civil, and divorce. All of the files will eventually be collected from various county departments and numerous shelves located in the courthouse and in the county administration building basement, with the information to be stored on computer servers. According to the Ohio Revised Code, all permanent county government records must be preserved and stored.
The county also is working with historical societies locally and under state direction to determine whether files that come into question are considered permanent or can be disposed of. But all paper and book records categorized as permanent files will be kept indefinitely.
“We’re talking millions of files, and they have to be done one by one,” Zuver said. The project is expected to take 20 years or more to complete.
Financing comes from a special funds account through the county court system, fed by a percentage of the cost to file a case. Last summer, Zuver hired part-time outside help to do nothing but prepare files stored in the Clerk of Courts office for electronic scanning. The entire scanning process will take an estimated five years for his office alone, although three years’ worth of files have already been scanned over six months.
“Technology keeps evolving and getting better, and I feel comfortable doing it this way,” Zuver said. “And if we don’t do something now, is it going to be around in 50 years?”
Each county department involved in the massive project can request preservation by either scanning or microfilm; so far, all have chosen scanning. But Zuver said the ultimate goal would be to microfilm all the files, an easy transfer from scanning. The estimated cost to microfilm everything is $60,000-$70,000.
Barber said there is a large debate going on “between those who are in the new technology and your old archivists, who still believe the best form of permanent record storage is microfilm.”
Once all of the information is transferred to a main server, citizens will be able to view specfically requested files from 2009 and back on desktop computers at the Clerk of Courts office or in the records center of the county administration building.
Barber said it became imperative through the years to save county records in case of natural or other disasters. “It became a major concern with the commissioners at the time that we preserve the records,” she said.
Thus far, veterans records and some from the county health department have been scanned as well. Barber said the county would be willing to do the same for other Fulton County governments, if requested.
She said the Fulton County project has caught the attention of eight other Ohio counties, which sent representatives to witness the scanning operation. Several are now planning similar projects.
Kevin Bidwell, supervisor in Barber’s microfilm center, said nearly two million files have already been scanned. But that’s a drop in the bucket, he said.
“We’re talking millions and millions of files. We plan on doing this for years,” he said.
Despite the titanic task, Bidwell doesn’t feel overwhelmed. “I’m just thankful we’re able to do it,” he said.
Zuver praised the joint cooperation between the county’s elected officials in getting the job done. “What a neat county that we live in, because all the officials help each other. Everybody works with everybody,” he said.
He said not only will the project free up filing space in the county courthouse for needed conference rooms, it will guarantee a permanent record of the past.
“There’s a lot of history here, and we want to keep it around for generations and generations to come,” Zuver said. “We know that the records are going to be here for the next hundred years.”
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.