Deeds going digital: ARPA funding makes possible the digitizing, preservation of hundreds
If you drive major roads fairly regularly, especially the divided highways and their big brothers – turnpikes and interstates – you’ve probably noticed a good-sized sign with a cheerful message surrounded by smiley faces and exclamation points as you bounce your way into a construction zone.
“Your Tax Dollars at Work!” is the message the state or town or county or federal public works crews are quick to convey, perhaps hoping to remind you that all those taxes you so dutifully and patriotically fork over to one level of government or another throughout any given year really are spent on things that make life easier or more pleasant for us – like wide, smooth highways.
Meanwhile, over at the historic circa 1900 building that houses the Hillsborough County Register of Deeds and some of the county prosecutors, dollars are at work – hard at work – but absolutely none of them are tax dollars.
Instead, these dollars are ARPA dollars, ones that Mary Ann Crowell, who ran for, and won, her first term as Register of Deeds last year, was able to secure through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) thanks to her perseverence and her strong desire to serve the people of Hillsborough County.
“I’m dedicated to the taxpayers of this county,” Crowell said matter-of-factly last week as we chatted while touring the registry offices in the former Superior Courthouse, where criminal cases were once adjudicated in a creaky, often smoky second-floor courtroom reminiscent of the one depicted in To Kill a Mockingbird – minus the upper balcony.
Crowell began seeking the ARPA funds as soon as the program was announced in March 2021. The funding she eventually succeeded in obtaining allowed the registry to move forward with an important project: Preserving, and digitally cataloguing, property deeds and other legal county documents that have been stored in archival-grade plastic sleeves in huge books since they were created.
Hired for the project was the national document-preservation firm Kofile, which sent a team of four preservationists to Nashua several weeks ago to undertake the massive document-scanning project.
Set up in an L-shaped, non-descript room on the first floor of the Temple Street building, is hard at work day by day scanning thousands upon thousands of old, really old, and ancient property deeds, indexes and related legal documents that will end up in a database that will save lawyers, historians, investigators and – perhaps most importantly, the tax-paying public – oodles of time finding what they are looking for.
When I say “really old” and “ancient” I’m not exaggerating. The first batch of documents to be scanned – some 415 volumes worth – were recorded in 1771. Yep, even before the Declaration of Independence was written, landowners were recording property deeds up here in Hillsborough County.
That first batch includes deeds recorded up to 1873. Also among the first to be scanned were 280 grantor/grantee index books, in which the basic information is listed and points the researcher toward the appropriate book and page for the full information, sort of like an index at the end of a reference book.
When this phase of the project is complete, each page of 714 books will be scanned and available to view online, Crowell said.
“Preserving the Past for the Future,” the Nashua Historical Society’s motto, can easily be applied toCrowell. “I’m very protective of the old, historical stuff,” she said, just in case her visitor was woefully unobservant.
Although she was voted into office just last year, Crowell is far from a new face around the office – she was an employee for 24 years, starting out as an indexer then moving on to proof reading.
Along the way she learned just how valuable the contents of those huge books – and now, the newly created databases – are to everyone.
“This is very important history for all these landowners,” she said, gesturing at the shelving full of countless volumes lined up along the walls.
Dean Shalhoup’s column appears weekly in The Sunday Telegraph. He may be reached at 594-1256 or firstname.lastname@example.org.