Good news for those big musty books in the courthouse basement

Becker County commissioners on Tuesday agreed to spend a little over $235,000 to digitize those big books — a project that will finish a decades-long, off-and-on digitization effort in the Becker County Recorder’s Office.

Susan Syvertson.JPG
Becker County Recorder Susan Syvertson.
Nathan Bowe/Tribune

DETROIT LAKES — Help is on the way for 362,880 pages that make up the 567 big, old deed books, mortgage books, and other bound volumes that have been stored down in the basement of the Becker County Recorder’s Office for decades.

County commissioners on Tuesday agreed to spend a little over $235,000 to digitize those big books — a project that will finish a decades-long, off-and-on digitization effort in the Becker County Recorder’s Office.

The work will be done by Information Systems Corp., which has offices in Fargo and Minneapolis and currently serves 50-some Minnesota counties, including Clay, Hubbard and Wadena.

The money will come from the $6 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars allotted to Becker County.

“We think it’s a great ARPA project,” said County Administrator Pat Oman.


While Tuesday’s board action was a win for Becker County Recorder Susan Syvertson, other department heads were not so lucky.

Commissioners took no action on requests by the County Assessor’s Office and the Planning and Zoning Department to have some of their paper and microfiche records digitized by ISC.

The Assessor’s Office has 240,000 pages and nearly 19,000 images in microfiche jackets that it would like to have prepped, indexed, scanned and digitized at a cost of $123,664.

“These are records going back to the 1950s and 1960s,” Assessor Lisa Will told commissioners. “If they’re not kept by the county, they’ll have to go to the state archives.”

At the Oct. 4 meeting, Will noted her office has files on “old property values going back to the beginning of time,” and added that if there is a fire in the courthouse or water damage from fire-suppression sprinklers, those old documents “are the only copy and can’t be replaced.”

At that same meeting, Commissioner Barry Nelson said that “I’m a little shocked at the price tag — a half million dollars. I’m not supporting it at this time, I need more information.”

As for the Planning and Zoning Office, it has 14,000 files, totaling 420,000 pages that it wants to have prepped, indexed, scanned and digitized at a cost of $75,600.

Septic system files, in particular, are used frequently and would benefit from being digitized, said Planning and Zoning Administrator Kyle Vareberg. ”We have missing files now,” he told the board. “We don’t know if we’ll ever find them — they get transferred among people.” Digitizing would create safe, permanent records, he said.


His father, Commissioner Richard Vareberg, owns an excavation business and agreed that digitization would be helpful.

“It’s a big deal for me to just be able to go online instead of calling or driving down there (to the courthouse)” he said.

The County Auditor-Treasurer’s Office also has 11 books, with a total of 7,040 pages, of old hand-written minutes from the County Board that it wants digitized and preserved at a cost of about $4,700. Commissioners earlier voiced support for that small project, but it was not included in the motion that passed Tuesday.

The County Human Services Department also has records it would like digitized, but that need was brought up late in the process and was not included in the proposal submitted by ISC.

In addition to the scanning work, the company also proposed that the county buy ISC information management software “to address the digital document storage needs for all departments.” The company says the system is used by a number of Minnesota counties, and allows 10 county users to be logged in at the same time, without user limitations.

The cost for the ISC software, installation and training is $23,462. There is also an annual maintenance fee of about $5,120.

The overall proposal, had it been accepted, would have totaled about $468,000.

“I’m not really sure it’s worth the $470,000,” to do digitization work beyond the Recorder’s Office, said Commissioner Ben Grimsley.


Commissioner Nelson also had concerns about the cost, and about being able to access the digitized records. “If you’re going to spend this much money, you have to find a way for the public to use it, within reason,” he said.

“Most counties around the area have done it already,” said Syvertson, the county recorder. The Recorder’s Office software is set up to easily find information online, she said.

At the Oct. 4 county board meeting, the decision was put off until more information was provided to commissioners.

On Tuesday, Grimsley said information as to how the proposal would benefit taxpayers had not been provided by county administration. “You saw the email,” he said to Nelson. “We didn’t get any explanation yet. I think we need to sit down with department heads and discuss it.”

At that point, Syvertson asked the board to consider approving just the digitization proposal for the Recorder’s Office, which has been working on digitization for years. The board agreed, and approved the proposal for the Recorder’s Office unanimously.

ISC said in its proposal that the conversion process will take six to nine months to complete. The big books will mostly be transported in batches to ISC’s conversion center in Fargo.

“We will securely transport your books/boxed records to our conversion center and have them returned the following week,” the company said in its proposal. “We will only check out what we can convert in a timely manner.” If a record is needed that is in the company’s possession, it will “scan and email the document to the requesting department within two hours.”

Most of the Recorder’s Office books are backed up by microfilm, but those that are not will be converted at the courthouse rather than transported to Fargo.

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