Digitizing History: Town of Mount Desert Moves Historical Records Online​

Historical records
Records of payments to the Town from the early 1900's
Town of Mount Desert record books
Bound books found in the Town's archives

With such a long and storied history, it’s no wonder that the Town of Mount Desert Office archives are full of old documents, but just how old might be a surprise. Town Clerk Claire Woolfolk gingerly opens a binder to reveal an original document titled, “The Oath of Allegiance: In the Thirteenth Year of the Independence of the United States of America,” signed by Mount Desert residents in 1789 pledging allegiance to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. “I get goosebumps,” says Claire. “Part of them is in that document.”

Since early 2016, Claire has been hard at work going through the mountains of paper documents housed in the Town Office’s vault in order to convert everything to digital format. “I’m getting down to the end of the really old books, and have a year to two years left of the oldest stuff,” estimates Claire.

The Town uses two tools to help get everything digitized while keeping the original documents in pristine condition. A company called Kofile in Essex, Vermont picks up the originals and works to preserve them, while another company called Laserfiche out of Long Beach, California does the actual digitization. 

1789 Oath of Allegiance to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts
The 1789 Oath of Allegiance to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, signed by Cornelius Thompson, Davis Wasgatt, Andrew Tarr, Abraham Somes, Stephen Richardson, Thomas Richardson, James Richardson, Levi Higgins, and Ezra Young.

Kofile sends along detailed steps outlining their restoration work, a process that takes approximately 16-20 weeks from the day they receive each item. They start by cataloging each piece they receive, from the condition of the document upon receipt to the presence of staples, paper clips, and acidic glues. After everything is noted, they begin the process of dismantling the pieces to prepare them for repair, restoration, and then digitization.

For archival purposes, the only acceptable formats of these items are paper, microfilm, and microfiche. “While some Town of Mount Desert documents are on microfilm, we have all the records on paper for archival requirements,” explains Claire. “We have documents indexed and digitalized for convenience purposes in the office. Should a document be an ‘open’ document (i.e., non-confidential), we would be able to print pages from the digital record without having to handle the original book.”

Shot of the Town of Mount Desert archive room
Looking into the vault at the Town Office
Town of Mount Desert's "Poor Account" from 1902
The Town used to keep what they referred to as the "Poor Account"

Digitization will make it easier for the Town Clerks to provide the residents of Mount Desert and beyond with documents. These incredibly important pieces of history will be easily accessible once everything is digitized. “We’re historians in a way,” says Jen McWain Buchanan, Deputy Town Clerk. It will also make record keeping easier for the Town Administration Office staff; instead of having to pull down a book or unearth a document from a box or shelf in the archive, Claire and her colleagues will be able to easily search on their computers.

Claire and Jen often hear from people who would like to look up genealogical artifacts. They enjoy helping people explore their family histories but ask that they give the Town Office a call first so they can find out exactly what it is they’re looking for and schedule a time for them to come in if it’s something they have in the vault. “A lot of recent requests have been for documents dated before what we have,” says Claire. In that case, Claire and Jen refer researchers to the Northeast Harbor Library or the Mount Desert Historical Society.

Claire understands how important this project is, not just as a Town employee but as someone who can trace her roots back to the northeast for many generations. She relishes being able to find items in town collections that connect her to her ancestors. You can see the passion in her eyes as she talks about the project and the things she’s discovered along the way. There’s no doubt that this project is in the best possible hands.