Friday, June 14, 2019

Record Book Technology

An essential element of the land records system in Massachusetts is that documents presented for recording are duplicated in the official records. The technology used to do this and to display the resulting images has changed through the years.

As we continue planning our move to the new Lowell Judicial Center - now scheduled for the spring of 2020 - we're re-inventorying our holdings to ensure there is sufficient storage space since all existing records will come with us to the new location.

Middlesex North record book 1 was created in 1855 when this office first opened. From then until 1924, copies of the original records were made by registry clerks using pen and ink. Through this 69 year period, 702 books were created, each with 600 pages of content.

In 1924, the registry used type writers to make copies. Registry clerks would retype recorded documents on both sides of the pages.. This technology was used for 25 years and 425 books were produced in this manner.

1948 brought microfilm to the registry of deeds. Not only was microfilm used as a part of disaster recovery planning, it also was an integral part of record book creation. Original documents were filmed and when the film was sent out to be developed, the company processing the film also printed paper copies of each frame on the front and back of sheets that were then bound into record books. Prints from microfilm were used for record book production for 46 years, from 1948 to 1995. 2,977 books were produced in this way.

Although the registry continued microfilming documents (which is still done today), the pages of record books began being printed from scanned document images in 1995. This allowed the registry to produce record books in-house. This technology was only used for six years although 4,932 books were created by this method.

The last paper record book produced by the registry was created in 2001. From that year onward, the registry relied on electronic images of documents for the official record with microfilm back up. In the 18 years since paper book production ceased, 20,240 "virtual books" have been created. (The registry has retained the historic book and page numbering system but that only serves as a document identification number rather than a physical location).

Not only has the technology used to produce the document images for the official records changed, so has the containers (i.e., books) used to store and share those images. From 1855 until 1980, books had heavy cardboard covers wrapped in tan fabric with leather corners. The pages were sewn into the covers which were 10.5 inches wide by 15 inches high and usually about 3 inches thick.

In 1981, the registry switched to heavy metal covers which were dark green in color and slightly larger than the tan books (12 inches by 15 inches), but these were only used for one year. Later in 1981, the registry adopted binders of heavy red plastic with the same larger dimensions. There were used until 1984. Both the green and the red books used a "post and hole" binding system similar to a three-ring binder only heavier and straighter.

In 1984, the registry made a radical change in its record books, shrinking the size from 12 by 15 inches to 9.5 by 12 inches. These books were white plastic and also used a post and hole binding system although all the hardware in these versions was plastic that snapped together. The book pages within the binding were of standard 8.5 inch by 11 inch size with printing on both sides. This book binding system was used until 2001 when the registry ceased making paper books altogether.

In addition to the above, there is a separate set of 244 books that include copies of all documents recorded prior to this registry's opening in 1855. Those documents were recorded in Cambridge and integrated with all the records in that registry. In 1855, clerks located and copied all of the documents previously recorded in Cambridge that depict land in the ten towns that made up the Middlesex North District.

These older records were placed in sets of books that were numbered in the traditional way but were also segregated by community. Hence, when looking for a document for land in Lowell from 1826, you would not only need to know the book and page number, you would also need to know that in 1855, that land was located in Lowell. Records that were clearly related to the northern district but which were not clearly in one of the towns were placed in another set of books labeled "Doubtful."

Here are the pre-1855 record book sets with the number of volumes in each:

  • Billerica - 21 books
  • Carlisle - 13 books
  • Chelmsford - 19 books
  • Doubtful - 16 books
  • Dracut - 16 books
  • Dunstable - 11 books
  • Lowell - 91 books
  • Tewksbury - 16 books
  • Tyngsborough - 7 books
  • Westford - 20 books
  • Wilmington - 14 books

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