Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Book and Page Numbers & Their Evolution

From the beginning, registries of deeds in Massachusetts have not retained custody of original documents but have copied those documents in their entirety into bound record books and returned the original documents to their owners. At first, those documents copies were hand-written, then they were typed, then they were printed from microfilmed copies of the documents. Beginning in 1994, the Middlesex North Registry began scanning documents into a computer system. Shortly after that, record books were printed from those scanned images and, beginning in 2001, the registry ceased printing paper record books, replacing paper with electronic images of the documents.

Throughout this evolution of document reproduction, documents recorded at the registry of deeds have always been assigned a "book and page number." That is because the documents are copied into sequentially numbered books with the pages within each book being sequentially numbers. To look at a deed with "book 500, page 20" as its identifier, you would go to book number 500 and open it to page 20. There would be your document.

Historically, ever page within a record book was numbered. In the example above, if the document in book 500, page 20 was five pages long, it would have been assigned pages 20, 21, 22, 23 and 24. The next document to be recorded would begin on page 25.

Because record books held a finite number of pages - usually 300, but also 600 or even 800 in older times - it was necessary to "roll over" the book and page numbers to the next book with some frequency. Rather than doing this immediately as documents were being recorded, the registry deferred assigning book and page numbers until days after the documents were recorded. But customers needed some immediate indicator that a document was in fact recorded, so registries began assigning an "instrument number" to each document. These instrument numbers were sequential through the year and rolled over to instrument number 1 at the start of each new year. This duel process of instrument numbers assigned immediately upon recording and book and page numbers assigned later in the process gave registry personnel plenty of time to carefully compile new record books with the proper number of pages.

The arrival of computers changed all that. Programming allowed the recording counter computer system to assign both the instrument number and the book and page number right at the point of recording. All that was needed was to count the number of pages in a document and enter that number in the computer.

Counting the number of pages in a document is trickier than it may sound, especially with some documents like mortgage growing to 25 pages or more. If you only entered 24 pages, the next document would start on page 25 and you would not have space for you extra page. Similarly, if you entered 26 pages for the document, your next document would start with page 27 and you would have a blank page in your record book. We employed a number of tricks or techniques to address those discrepencies, but none of them worked very well.

Soon after we ceased printing paper record books in November 2001, it occurred to me that without a tangible book to thumb through, the only meaningful page number on a document was the first one. Starting in January 2002, we stopped assigning individual page numbers to the subsequent pages of a recorded document. At that point, the book and page number had morphed into a document ID number. While we still count the number of pages in a document, enter that in the computer, and expect that the page number of the next document fits the logical sequence, if we do make an error counting the pages, we simply correct the "number of pages in the document" field in our computerized index and don't worry about the page number of the next document.

The reason I am writing about this now is that a lawyer who was doing a title exam recently encountered a series of related documents that were relevant to his investigation. The first document in the sequence was two pages long and was assigned page number 1 of that "book", but the second document was assigned page number 5. If that was in fact the next document in the sequence, it should have been assigned page 3. The lawyer was concerned that there was another document in between these two that had somehow disappeared from our index that might affect his title.

As soon as I looked at the first document, I saw the cause of the number gap. We had initially written "4" at the top corner of the first document for the number of pages. Perhaps those first two documents were initially packaged as one and only after the first document was recorded as a four page document did we realize it was two separate two-page documents. Whatever the cause, we were left with a two-page gap in our numbering sequence. The explanation for that was easy to find, and if it was not a sequence of related documents, the lawyer looking at them never would have noticed the gap. So there was nothing missing, just a lawyer being prudent.

That's the story of how registry book and page numbers have evolved through the years. 

1 comment:

Jeff Welch said...

The older registries began with a liber and folio system of pagination. Each folio (Latin for "leaf") was individually numbered; each side of the folio ("recto" and "verso") shared the same number. While in 1800, they'd have considered a deed to be recorded, for example, in Liber 49, Folio 3, Verso, we'd look at that book and see two pages numbered "3". Around the 1880s - after two hundred years - the Plymouth Registry adopted modern pagination; each leaf was assigned a number. Folio 3, Verso would now be Page 6.

From what I've seen, those registries founded in the 17th and 18th centuries started off with the old system, transitioning to the modern in the late 19th century. Registries founded from the mid-19th century on, appear to have used the modern system from the start.