Friday, January 15, 2010

A review of efforts to present old indexes

How to present older indexes to off-site users has been a decade-long challenge for us that’s yet to be resolved. Middlesex North had installed its first Wang computer in 1987, so that’s where the searchable computerized index began. It was obviously desirable to add older data to the system. Eventually, registry employees began a project called “the ten year index” in which they photocopied the pages of the 1976-1986 grantor and grantee indexes, and keyed the contents of those pages into the Wang database. When I arrived in 1995, only a small dent had been made in the project, so we reinforced the staff working on the project, raising that number to ten employees, but even with the extra help it still took 14 months to enter 10 years of data. Because of the large commitment of resources that had been required to finish that job, we began looking for more efficient ways to achieve a similar result.

An alternative approach unexpectedly emerged from disaster recovery planning we undertook in preparation of Y2K. We had just purchased a microfilm scanner that would capture the image from a frame of microfilm and convert it to a digital image on the computer. After we had purchased the machine, which we intended to use to scan our older record books, we grew concerned about our ability to recreate the paper grantor and grantee indexes if they were destroyed in a disaster. Fortunately, all of our indexes were backed up on microfilm just the same as our record books. Using our new microfilm scanner, we were able to capture digital images of every page of every index. Although the project took several months to complete, we still ended up with a full digital copy of all grantor and grantee indexes.

The next challenge was deciding how to present these scanned index images to our users in a practical way. Eventually we settled on bundling images together alphabetically in separate PDF files. This worked very well; it was just like having the actual index book in front of you. The problem was that the individual files were so big (many close to 1 GB) that we could not make them available on our website although they worked fine here in the registry where we could make them available on our network. To make the files available off-site, we offered them to users on CDs, but the full set required 16 CDs, which was an unwieldy number.

Advances in technology soon came to our assistance. Small, pocket-portable flash drives/thumb drives soon affordably grew to 16 GB capacity which is plenty to hold all of these indexes. For a year, now, we have allowed customers to bring as a 16 GB drive and we’ll copy the data to it at no charge. That service is still available to customers.

Our latest method of distributing these PDF files is still in the theoretical stage, but it’s a good time to describe it. Have you ever purchased software for download? You click through a few buttons and suddenly a new window opens and some icon-alert shows files being downloaded to your computer. We’re going to try to duplicate this method by putting our PDF index files on a server that will download the files on command. If we’re successful in setting this up, anyone with an internet connection will be able to download a full copy of the registry’s 1630 to 1975 grantor/grantee index to a home computer. In the meantime, we’ve resumed “back indexing” by using our employees to key data from older documents into the computer. We usually have 3 people per day working on the project and as of now, we’re back to 1971.

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