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Cowlitz County, Wash., Digitizing Records Back to the 1850s

The Cowlitz County Auditor's Office is currently building an online database for records stretching from the 1850s to present day. Auditor Carolyn Fundingsland hopes to have the project complete by the end of 2024.

(TNS) — In the near future, all Cowlitz County Auditor's Office records stretching back to the 1850s will be in a searchable online database, as part of a multi-year project to preserve historic documents and make them easily accessible.

Last week, the county commissioners approved an additional $57,550 for the ongoing contract with Washington State Archives to digitize and index the hundreds of thousands of records. Auditor Carolyn Fundingsland said she hopes the amount will be enough to finish the project by the end of 2024.

"My goal is two things, to protect history forever and also make it free and easy to access for the public," she said.

The preservation project started with a $50,000 grant from the State Archives in 2019, but work was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Fundingsland said. In the last two years, the county spent $63,372 on the project, using a portion of document recording fee revenue required for preservation, she said.

Records — including deeds, easements, maps, liens, oaths and marriage certificates — from 1980 to present are available on the county website today. Some records from previous years are online, while staff are working to add the rest.

Historic records going back to the 1800s were kept at the Auditor's Office in the Cowlitz County Administration Building in Kelso until 2020.

After the COVID-19 pandemic began, the auditor's office received a "rare opportunity" to remodel the elections office using federal money, Fundingsland said. The only available space to expand was the vault, which stored original records, she said.

Despite its name, the vault — built in the 1930s — wasn't fireproof or temperature controlled and had leaks in the roof, Fundingsland said. The office didn't have enough staff to monitor citizens who came to view the records there, and people tore sheets out of books, wrote in the margins and stole three books, she said.

In June 2020, the county transferred the paper records to the state to allow for the remodel and a better storage environment, Fundingsland said.

"My goal is to never take a service away from the public," she said. "We had these publicly available on site, so surrendering them to Washington State Archives would not have been done without the agreement to digitize records to maintain accessibility. We really want public records owned by citizens available to them free of charge."

While all counties are required to produce electronic records, not all are scanning or indexing old ones, Fundingsland said. Most counties have surrendered their record books to the state, and the public can access records through the archives department.

"I would compare them to a librarian and the auditor's office is a liaison," she said. "You use us to help you identify whether or not your record exists and provide information on that, because if it's not available online, there are no easy search terms."

A citizen can use information from the county auditor's office to request a record from the state for free via email or by setting an appointment to see it in person in Olympia, Fundingsland said.

Digitizing Cowlitz County's old records is moving slower than anticipated because of the pandemic, staffing shortages and the time consuming nature of indexing, Fundingsland said. Indexing the records is what allows them to be searchable by name or other information, she said.

The older records are delicate, handwritten and can be difficult to read, said Brandi Kuljis, licensing and recording manager, during the county commission meeting.

"The closer we get to the 70s, 60s, we have more readable information so we can index faster," she said.

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