19 January 2016

Interview with Berks County Recorder of Deeds-- Fred Sheeler

Back in September, I shared the online search and image viewing capabilities for documents at the website of the Berks County Recorder of Deeds (a county adjacent to my own). In my article, I noted the strides Recorder Fred Sheeler has taken in making these documents so accessible, in my view above and beyond what you see in many other counties. Recently, Mr. Sheeler afforded me the opportunity to ask him some further questions about his accomplishments and his recording process. Hopefully, under new leadership with newly-elected Recorder Ms. Jeanne Sorg in my home county of Montgomery, I may see some similar types of improvements in the coming years. My Q&A with Mr. Sheeler is below, and his bio page is linked here. The interview has been edited some for clarity.

You've been Recorder since 2008 and were just re-elected to a third term. What would you consider to be your major accomplishments in those 7 years?

My primary objective that I had to run, and got accomplished pretty quick, was eliminating any sort of a backlog in our current recording volume. We did that very fast by tweaking the existing computer system that was here to the best extent that we could, and simplifying alot of procedural work that bogged things down. Then, to be ensured that we could keep that up and then do it even better, that's where we installed the complete new software platform... functionality on the website, alot more functionality on our recording side.

So, really I look at it as two things-- keeping up with the new, existing volume and making it as easily searchable as possible, and as fast going to record as possible; and, preserving and making available all the old historic documents. There's a fine line-- some counties have said "we're too busy with just keeping up with new stuff, we're not concerned with the old stuff... it's not important. If people need it, let them come in here and go through it." Well, I think you can do both and we've been doing both. We now have seldom any backlog at all-- right now, there is one document in our electronic recording queue (about 80% of all new documents come through electronically) so you say, basically that's caught up... and as far as paper documents, that box is empty. So, right now there is nothing waiting to be recorded. That's where, for our staff members, there's nothing new to record, so they go into backfile indexing (old documents which were never indexed into a computer system). Right now, we are working with deeds, so we're indexing and verifying deeds that were recorded in 1931. The old computerized system had only indexed documents from 1982 forward (deeds before that you had to use the actual index books), and so now we've indexed into the system over 50 years of deeds.

So catching up on, and eliminating, the current recording backlog allows you the freedom to spend time on these indexing projects. How much of a backlog was there when you came in?

When I got here, it was roughly about a 2-1/2 week backlog. Now, that was after the prior Recorder was ordered by the court to catch up-- she was actually up to six months behind at one time. When it gets six months behind, things don't get recorded in the proper order. Anything in the backlog is held in a vault, and at that time the vault was so packed with six months of documents, you couldn't reach the document that came in first because it was buried in the back of the vault... The problem of a backlog was compounded because you couldn't record things "first in, first out" as you are supposed to. Now we do everything in the order its received. Electronic recording makes everything very simple, it stays in the correct order in the queue once something is submitted in the e-recording queue. With paper documents (only about 20% of received documents), it physically comes into the office at a certain time-- the staff if able to consult the e-recording queue and continue to work on those which remain in the queue up until the electronic queue meets up with the time when the paper document came in. So everything is kept in as correct an order as possible.

What would be some of the difficulties or challenges other Recorders might face in implementing the dual goals of recording current documents as well as indexing older documents?

Well, maybe the limitations on their computer system. If they have any of the major systems out there, they can do this kind of stuff too. One of the older systems, a user might have to pay a subscription fee to search for a certain amount of time, so that makes it harder... it could be monetary things: your staffing comes under the control of (county) commissioners. The Recorders have alot of autonomy, but if the commissioners say you can't hire somebody, you can be stuck. I haven't had problems with that, since I had a pretty large staff when I got here. Here, we've generally not filled positions when people come up for retirement. We went from 24 staff members down to 10 staff members.

A new Recorder coming in must make sure they are doing e-recording. It saves you the amount of time you would need to do these other things. There's no paper shuffling, no check handling, it's just click, click. Make sure you have a computer system that's automated enough that indexing comes with it. There's so many fewer steps. Correcting mistakes is simple as well. It makes it go so much faster that it allows your staff the ability to do these other projects yourself. Now, you might have to pay for microfilm conversion, but every single county in Pennsylvania has a fund called the Record Improvement Fund. This is set up by law-- we get to collect $3 per document that is recorded (we average 50,000 documents a year, so about $150,000), which can go into this fund. That can cover alot. Even in smaller counties, they don't record as much, but they also don't have as many documents to archive. With very low volumes like that you might even be able to scan your documents in-house.

Recorder of Deeds is an elected position in most counties-- what are some of the political issues for a position like this? Does it really boil down to the fundamental differences of scope and size of government?

You know, I think, some people try to run that way. My last opponent tried to say "he's for big government, he's a liberal..." I kept repeating: I've cut our expenses over $2 million a year. Our staff is down from 24 to 10. Now, I was a little worried due to it being an off election cycle. You only have more dedicated voters come out in some elections and you can get concerned that it can be more of a party line vote if your turnout is low. But for me, I won 55% to 45%, so people knew the office was so bad before, they don't hear any complaints now. We have good outreach, letting people know how we do things, I do seminars for local clubs, maybe about 6 times a year. Historical societies really enjoy hearing about the old documents.

Your website has a link to "Curious Historic Documents" which is not live yet. What sorts of things do you have planned for that?

We have slave manumissions, releases of slavery. There is also an account from the 1700's of an Indian attack, I believe it may have been the French and Indian War, and it was filed so that a soldier who was injured with a musket ball through his hand could collect a pension from the county commissioners. It describes the whole attack and what happened to him. There's one that's an account of a bar fight in the borough of Hamburg, in the 1770's or 1780's. This man had the unfortunate circumstance of having the lower part of his left ear bitten off by this other guy. And back then if you were a felon, they cut the bottom of your left ear off to mark you as a felon. So he had this document, signed by the guy who bit him, recorded in our office so that if he would come to a place where he was unacquainted, then he could prove he wasn't a felon. We also have paternity settlements from the 1800's, and also things like documentation of the burial of radioactive materials. I have it all planned out just haven't been able to get it up yet.

How often do people come in seeking out information, or for help, about their own house?

All the time. It's either on the web, or they'll call us, they might get stuck. People all over the country looking for information on people who lived here generations ago. I've been sort of impressed with how many older individuals have gotten so adept at using the computer and are on our website. We even have people come in, from time to time, that think their house is haunted. One was even highlighted on Animal Planet once, with a house where the animals got freaked out. The people living there had the impression of the name Sarah, so we were able to trace it back and sure enough there was a Sarah who had lived there at that time. And I think they were able to go back further and find death records for her and everything. But yeah, people just want to know, especially if they have an old house, they come in to find out and search. Unfortunately, I think some people do their research on our website and don't quite know what they are looking at-- we actually have much less research questions than we had before, with everything online now. But people love it, alot of them are just doing this research on their own.

Many thanks again to Fred for his time in answering these questions and to making more historic documents accessible and available to the public!

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