Chester County to soon digitize all historical records dating back to 1681 – Daily Local

WEST CHESTER — In less than two years, Chester County’s most historic documents will be available online. With advanced scanning equipment, the Chester County Archives and Records Service has accelerated the process of scanning and digitizing records dating back to 1681. The goal: to make the collection publicly available on the county’s website so people can easily access historical information.

The county installed a new scanner in January 2020 just before the impact of COVID, making this project possible. Since 2007, the department has been working with a less advanced scanner. To date, about 40 percent of the archive fund has been digitized.

“Our goal is to have everything that is considered a historic, permanent record digitized,” said Chester County Commissioner Chairwoman Marian Moskowitz. “Some conversions are from microfilm to digital, and others are from the physical documents themselves to digital. The process of scanning the originals is slow, because they have to be handled very delicately, and here we are talking about 340 years of history.”

A climate-controlled room at the county’s public services center in West Chester stores documents and keeps them stable. Fluctuations in temperature and humidity damage paper, so the temperature in the storage room is always around 65 degrees with 45% relative humidity.

“The primary goal of our department is the long-term preservation of and access to the county’s historic records,” said Director of Archives and Records Cliff Parker. “We hope that once they are digitized, the originals will no longer be worked with.”

The upgraded scanner has a better lens and produces images faster than the model it replaced, purchased in 2007. The new technology scans documents in color and at a higher DPI (dots per inch), so image quality is sharper. In addition, technology has made storage much less expensive, making it easier to store large files.

The new machine can scan records at up to 1,000 dpi, but the Chester County Archives scans documents such as court records, deed books and property files at 300 dpi, which is the archival standard for text documents. The collection includes a very limited number of visual media such as photographs scanned at 600 dpi.

Parker, who served as county archivist for 20 years before becoming director, noted that one of the documents currently being scanned is Chester County’s first court record, which documents the county’s earliest governmental actions from 1681-1697. The second corresponding volume covers 1697-1710.

The register records all functions of county government, including offices, administrative functions and judicial activities.

“William Penn didn’t arrive in his newly acquired North American colony until October 28, 1682, so some of the records began before William Penn set foot in Pennsylvania,” Parker exclaimed.

“It’s exciting to know that we’ll be able to search all kinds of records online, trace family trees and other aspects of the county’s long and rich history,” said Commissioner Josh Maxwell. “Our recordings bring to life so many aspects of bygone years – bygone centuries. If you’re looking for your Chester County ancestors or famous people, chances are they’ll be found in archives ranging from tax records to estate records.”

The Chester County Poor House was established in 1800 in West Bradford to employ and support the county’s poor. Poor and elderly people with limited physical and mental abilities went there.

Interestingly, while the county retains all existing material records created before 1920, changes in preservation policy meant that only a few records were retained after that period. Today, less than 10 percent of the records created by the county each year are considered permanent records of historical value.

Commissioner Michelle Kichlein said this transformation project is about access. The problem with saving records on microfilm, she said, is that the user needs a machine to retrieve them, and no one sells or repairs those machines when they break.

Additionally, most of the county’s microfilm is stored off-site. The Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission has a microfilm preservation program. If a user wants to review the document, the commission must make a duplicate and send it to Chester County, making the process lengthy.

“As we approach the nation’s 250th anniversary in 2026, people can focus on the history of Chester County as much as they do on the history of America,” said Kichline, head of the Chester County America250PA Commission. “It will be a wonderful achievement to be able to sit at a computer, search and see scans of these interesting and invaluable documents.”

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