Microfilm and digital storage help storage stalemate - WTRF 7 News Sports Weather - Wheeling Steubenville

Microfilm and digital storage help storage stalemate

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Kyle Campbell, with the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, displays a roll of microfilm. Kyle Campbell, with the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, displays a roll of microfilm.

What will alleviate the "storage stalemate" in West Virginia's circuit clerks' offices?

Going to a paperless system like that of the federal court would help, but it's still a while down the road.

However, an initiative approved by the West Virginia Supreme Court could mean not only space savings but cost savings.

"Since the day I took this job, the next day, I had a call from a circuit clerk concerned about space," said Steve Canterbury, the court's administrative director. "County commissioners have talked about it, and it has proved expensive and also proved to be expansive. The records keep piling up, especially order books."

A state Supreme Court committee has been working on this issue for a couple of years and recently submitted its report to the state Supreme Court during an administrative conference.

The Supreme Court accepted the report and sent it to the clerk's office to develop rules.

The report states that circuit clerks may use digitally retrievable scanning. This means people wouldn't have to know case numbers, parties or years to look up a case.

"It's like Google," Canterbury explained. "You enter the keywords and you can find it."

This type of scanning would start with order books. Canterbury said it will be a major cost saver.

"It's really expensive. It's about $900 each for those big binders. It all comes down to supply and demand. No one is making them. Very few are bothering with these large log books."

It also will alleviate some space issues. Canterbury said one clerk told him it eliminated an entire room of storage.

"It is a real problem," Canterbury said. "We frequently forget that government comes down to a place to put the stuff. The matter of having the space to make sure we are doing this with an eye toward the cost. … Part of their budgets go to these storage facilities, and they have to be stored in a way that meets environmental standards so they don't have mildew and mush."

Later, he said he hopes circuit clerks will be able to scan everything they want. To access files, there will be public terminals. Canterbury said if a person can use Google, then using this system will be no problem.

How long until it's all documents will be online?

"All documents is an enormous undertaking," he said. "And we have experimented with that in a few counties. We've seen how expensive it is. It's a lot of manpower. It really is. You can't believe how many pieces of paper are in these offices."

Kanawha County Circuit Clerk Cathy Gatson said there are a few obstacles to overcome. 

"The federal system has had a paperless filing system for several years," Gatson said. "The thing that they have that makes it easier than state courts is they don't have family courts, domestic relations and a lot of pro se litigants. It is attorney-driven and they have access to equipment to do that where you may or may not have that in these pro se or family court cases." 

E-filing in mass litigation cases went live in 2008 and e-filing may be expanded in the future. Gatson said one area the office may look at is e-filing criminal cases.

Civil cases would be another area, she said. Yet, again, she mentioned the problem with pro se litigants who may not have the access.

 "I don't know if it will ever be a pure paperless system like the federal system," she said. "But it may be a hybrid."

Plus, she said there is a need for permanent records.

For these permanent records, preservation is vital.

That's why Mike Ward and Kyle Campbell, both with the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, travel to courthouses all over the state to grab certain records and transfer them to microfilm — a preservation tool that looks similar to a roll of film negatives.

Microfilming started in the late 1940s. As the years have gone by, fewer documents have been preserved in this way. A 33-mm roll stores about 700 pages, and a 16-mm would store 2,600 pages of court documents.

"Now, it's not used as much as it once was to preserve documents," Ward said. "I remember a time when people were saying that everything was going to be put on microfilm. Now, there are digital images as well. Digital images are great for access, but we've all had computers that fail, power outages or glitches with the computers. Then that record is lost forever."

Ward, who heads up record preservation, said they have worked on this project for three years and regardless if state courts go to a completely paperless system, there still will be the need for the microfilm backup.

Microfilm rolls are stored offsite. They are i-readable and can be recreated into a digital form. Mostly, what goes onto microfilm are birth, marriage and death records and deed books.

"Especially if you're going all digital and no paper copy, you will need preservation form of some kind," Ward said. "I would have a hard time sleeping at night if it were only digital."

Why would he have sleepless nights if this were the case? Well, Ward explained that any number of issues, such as user error or even a computer crash would have the potential of deleting these files. 

Campbell, who serves as a county records specialist, said in his experience traveling to different counties that space is a problem.

"Courthouses were never designed to keep records that long, I don't think," he said. "Most of the courthouses were built in the 19th century. Some were built in the 20th century. … These record rooms are not designed to continue to grow to meet what we have today."

Plus, he said, court documents keep getting bigger. "You look at a deed from the 1800s and it's smaller than a deed is today," Ward said. "And you look at court filings. Back in the 1800s, it was just an entry of what a decision was. There wasn't a lot of testimony recorded. There has been a proliferation with computers and a lot more paper. Regular court filings can be several hundred pages long."

In the future, Ward said he sees more counties getting digital systems but still protecting vital documents on microfilm.

"They tell us the life expectancy of microfilm is 500 years," Ward said. "Most of us believe we are not going to live that long to hold them to their warranty."