Northumberland County begins digitizing 250 years of records

By Mark Gilger (StaffWritermark_g@newsitem.com)

SUNBURY – It’s a daunting task dependent on funding, but Northumberland County Prothonotary and Clerk of Courts Justin Dunkelberger and Register and Recorder Mary Zimmerman are confident thousands of historical court records can be preserved electronically in the next couple years.

Northumberland County Prothonotary Justin Dunkleberger talks about the process of backing up the old files of his office that are stored in the basement of the county courthouse in Sunbury.

The first physical steps to computerize records in both offices began Monday morning when a truckload of documents were removed from the dark, damp courthouse basement and transported to IMR Documents and Data in Hazleton to become digitalized.

After each truckload of records is organized and computerized, they will be returned to the county within a week. If anyone wishes to review a record during the time they are being computerized, a copy of the document they are seeking will be sent to the courthouse in a day or two.

The county officials said there are approximately 3,000 tri-folders, thick binders and boxes containing county records from their two offices alone. Each binder contains 500 to 600 pages and weighs approximately 25 pounds.

“IMR Digital, which is the software provider for both our offices, will transport a truckload of records to their office every Monday for the next 14 or 15 weeks while returning the previous week’s documents after they are computerized,” Dunkelberger said. “This is a very labor-intensive project, especially the indexing part. But our goal is to get most of the records digitalized and online in the next couple years.”

Dunkelberger said digitalizing the records is expected to cost between $700,000 and $900,000. He said IMR, which also has offices in Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, was the low bidder for the work, which has been approved by the county commissioners.

Paying for it

The prothonotary said both offices are contributing $50,000 each from their improvement fund budgets, which include user fees for services rendered. “There will be no tax dollars spent on this project,” he said.

He also said the prothonotary and register and recorder offices have allocated $25,000 each in their 2015 budgets toward the computerized records.

The county’s improvement fund committee comprised of Zimmerman, Dunkelberger, Commissioner Stephen Bridy, Treasurer Kevin Gilroy and Sheriff Robert Wolfe has earmarked $100,000 for the project with money received in user fees.

County officials also are seeking outside funding for the computerized records project.

In addition to the prothonotary and register and recorder, records also are kept in vaults in the courthouse basement for the commissioners, sheriff and treasurer.

“We started organizing this project in March,” said Dunkelberger. “With the help of three work release program participants from Northumberland County Prison approved by then Warden Roy Johnson, we were able to complete some of the legwork. The inmates, who are now free and employed, really helped us and it was a good experience for them.”

Dunkelberger said he hopes to receive approval from the court to use defendants placed on probation to help with preparing the documents for transport to Hazleton.

“These records have been subjected to awful conditions through the years,” he added.

250 years of records

Dunkelberger said since he took office in January, he’s had security cameras, a copier and dehumidifier installed in the basement. Workers also were able to unclog some of the drains to alleviate water problems.

“We are one broken pipe, fire or flood away from losing 250 years of history,” he said.

Zimmerman agreed with Dunkelberger about the precarious condition of the records.

“This is long overdue,” she said. “Not having the records digitalized has put us in jeopardy of losing them forever. Justin and I have worked on this for the past several months and we believe it can work, but it’s going to take time and money.”

Zimmerman, who plans to computerize every deed, marriage license, adoption and orphan’s court document, said, “I’m really excited that we will be able to offer history online back to the 1700s.”

Proper storage

Computerizing records also will reduce foot traffic in both offices, which will free up employees for other duties.

Northumberland County Register and Recorder Mary Zimmerman looks over one of the old record books kept in her office. View Image Gallery for Northumberland County begins digitizing 250 years of records Image Gallery for Northumberland County begins digitizing 250 years of records.

She agreed with Dunkelberger that indexing the materials will be the most difficult and expensive part of the project.

Zimmerman said officials from the Degenstein Foundation in Sunbury and Northumberland County Historical Society have expressed interest in supporting the project.

In January, the Degenstein Foundation pledged $1 million to preserve the records by moving them to the former Amato’s Pizza building on Market Street. But no further developments have occurred with the proposal since that time, Zimmerman said.

“We appreciate the support from the Degenstein Foundation and historical society,” she said. “We want to get as much out of the basement as possible, but we haven’t decided on another storage facility that would be appropriate.”

Although the records are being computerized, she said the originals must be kept at the courthouse for historical purposes.

Commissioner Richard Shoch has served as a liaison between the Degenstein Foundation and commissioners regarding the records preservation project.

Earlier this year, Commissioner Chairman Vinny Clausi formed an informal advisory committee to assist the commissioners in moving the records to a new location. Clausi chose President Judge William H. Wiest to chair the committee because of his close association with the historical society and his desire to preserve and protect the historical records of the county.

Zimmerman, Deputy Prothonotary Geraldine Yagle and acting chief clerk John Muncer also serve on the committee.

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