24 November 2015

Attention All Recorders of Deeds-- Be Like Berks County!

Early on, I outlined how you can access online databases at some your local county government offices to help kick-start your house research, before heading there in person. Although I cautioned against assuming that all of your research questions can be answered online, there is one county nearby that has made incredible headway in the online frontier.

Welcome to the County of Berks

Although I do not live in Berks County, PA, a large percentage of my ancestry is rooted there, and the city of Reading, the county seat, is only about 70-80 minutes from my house. My grandmother grew up there. Thus, I've become familiar with searching records there, and I have to say that this county is doing alot of great things in terms of making records accessible to their constituency, researchers alike, and the public at large. The county's Register of Wills has some great searchable indexes for birth, marriage, and death records. Although that office's actual records are not available online (yet), they make it very easy for one to do alot of prep time ahead of visiting their office in person, by giving you all of that index information- the dates, volumes, and page numbers right there online. That makes it incredibly easy to get right to finding the actual records you need once you are there in person (or just as easy to request them by mail). The Register of Wills even gives a bit of his own personal genealogy on his bio page!

Deeds Online Galore!

But let's get back to houses, shall we? Berks County takes it to the next level over at the Recorder of Deeds office. The current Recorder, Fred Sheeler, has been leading his staff since 2008 in an incredible effort of records digitization. According to their website, essentially the entire collection of deeds recorded in the county since its founding in 1752 has been digitally scanned and is available for residents and researchers to access online. Although not all of the images are indexed by name and searchable as of yet, it appears to me that a great number are. The Recorder's office states that their goal is to have all of their documents back to 1752 indexed by name and searchable, making it even easier for researchers to find what they are looking for.
(Update: Fred Sheeler provided this clarification to me regarding online searchability: "All the documents are searchable just not by the modern name search capability.  All older documents that we have not fully indexed are still searchable by our online electronic version of our index books.  When you are on the search site just choose Index Books as the search criteria,  you enter the party’s last name and the first initial of their given name and all the index books will display.  You can choose from the deed grantor and grantee indexes or the miscellaneous or mortgage indexes.  They are actually better than a regular modern name search since the index books group similar sounding names together so if you had an ancestor with the name Snyder and it formerly was spelled as Snider you would still come across it."
Thanks Fred for the clarification: this is useful to know and sounds similar to the way I search for deeds in person at the computer station at Montgomery County, whereas Berks has it online. Although a fully indexed database is often easier to use for those unfamiliar with these record types, researchers should be familiar with searching records using index books as well, as it is not difficult and can yield persons of the same surname, who could possibly be related, or with similar spellings as Mr. Sheeler suggests.)

Also available are mortgage documents and even subdivision plans. Yes, I repeat, these document images are all online! If you live in Berks County, the process of chaining the title for your house history research could be complete within an hour or so without even going to the county offices. The images can be printed or saved for $1 per page. (Update: Sheeler informs me that images are 50 cents per page, plus $1 when using a credit card in order to cover processing fees. Below, I was looking at a 2-page document, which would be ($0.50 x 2) + $1 = $2.00). Note that, as of now, the image viewing capabilities are based on the outdated Java platform and only seems to work on Internet Explorer (for me at least), but supposedly this drawback is known and is actively being updated to an HTML platform.

Public Outreach

Sheeler is clearly interested in the public actually being able to use and understand these public records. The office now puts out a periodic e-newsletter to provide updates to Berks residents on its efforts to streamline the deed recording process, bringing it into the 21st century while maintaining the integrity and security required of this governmental recording process. Sheeler also makes himself available to give instructional lectures to local groups on how to access and use these databases. Last month, I received the latest newsletter and was extremely interested to learn of this 5-minute video, produced by the Recorder's office, discussing the evolution of deed recording in the county:

I Digress (By Trying It Myself)

With all of this great information out there, although it did not benefit my personal house history directly, I had to try some of this out to enhance my personal genealogy research. I accessed the online database, and did a general search for my great-great-grandfather, Henry F. Snyder. There were 61 hits in the search for "Henry Snyder", 5 of which I could immediately tell were my ancestor. I knew because they were associated with property in Reading, where Henry lived, included his known middle initial "F", and also listed his wife, my great-great-grandmother Maggie. I went to one of the document images:

Screenshot of a scanned document image for a property deed, involving my great-great grandparents Henry F. and Maggie Snyder as the grantors.
In this particular deed, I learn that Henry and Maggie Snyder, in 1946, were conveying their 2-1/2 story brick house to a Ms. Edna Long, for the consideration amount of $1 (clue to check for a corresponding mortgage!). The address of the house was 736 Thorn Street, in Reading, and the deed further states that this is the same premises which Henry acquired in 1922 from Michael and Elizabeth Hill. Sure enough, my great-great-grandparents are listed at this same address in both the 1930 and 1940 censuses.

Clip from the 1940 US Census schedule, showing Henry and Margaret Snyder. The address number "736" is listed in the first column, with the street name "Thorn St" listed in the margin.
I was curious to see if I could get a Google Maps Street View of this house, assuming the house still exists. It does, but unfortunately, it looks like the Google car hasn't made it to this street (I was surprised!). Next time I find myself in Reading, I'll have to try to take a swing by.

Google Maps image. The brick dwelling at 736 Thorn St appears to still exist, but the Street View car hasn't captured an image of it as of yet.

Other Recorders on Notice!

I personally think that what Mr. Sheeler has done with the historic records at the Berks County Recorder of Deeds is incredibly commendable in terms of government accessibility and transparency, as well as in the preservation of important legal and historic documents. This is by no means a political website, but in many areas, the Recorder of Deeds is an elected position. If the county where your home is located isn't working to digitize documents, find out if there are plans to do so in the future from your current Recorder. The reality is that something like this takes years to execute, and often budget constraints make such efforts difficult. However making your voice heard as a local constituent can go a long way towards the effort of bringing records preservation into the 21st Century. Perhaps there would even be an opportunity to volunteer. Tell them to learn from Berks County!

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