The public can access BLM's "land patents," which record the transfer
of land from the federal
government to private citizens. Many of the patents date back almost 200 years, and they are key for genealogical and legal researchers. Until recently, the documents were available only by visiting a BLM records vault in Northern Virginia.
BLM officials decided to digitize the original documents because the records were deteriorating due to legal title researchers and genealogists thumbing through them, said Jim Gegen, automation manager for the project, which seeks to make records from the now-defunct General Land Office (GLO) electronically accessible. Putting the documents online also will give researchers electronic shortcuts to finding the appropriate record because the site offers a keyword search.
The Web site (http://www.glorecords.blm.gov) lets researchers view text data from GLO records and images of the actual documents.
Pamela Storm Wolfskill, an amateur genealogist who lives in California, used the Web site to print a copy of a title that transferred federal land to one of her ancestors. "Ten minutes after I found the Web site, I held in my hands a copy of an actual document, 144 years old, with my third-great-grandfather's name on it," she said. "It described in detail the location of the particular parcel of land in Jasper County, Mo., that he had purchased from the U.S. government while Franklin Pierce was president. To realize that my very own grandpa's great-grandpa had once laid eyes on the very same document, and that I was now looking at a copy of the very same piece of paper, gave me goose bumps. This man whom I had never known, whose life experiences helped determine my very existence, suddenly became real to me."
But not everyone is as satisfied with the Web site. Users who want to view a copy of an actual document must own a viewer that is capable of reading files in Tagged Image File format.
"Not all genealogists rush out to buy new hardware or upgrade their browsers or load new software for viewing images every time they visit a Web site," said Tom Raynor, an amateur genealogist who lives in York, Maine. "Short-sighted developers love to embellish their sites with all kinds of frilly new features. Users hate them."
The site also is not all-encompassing. So far, 2 million of an approximate 5 million records have been put online, and the records online do not cover all states. Records for Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin are online. Moreover, because agencies routinely have reorganized how they have kept land records, the 3 million records not online - which cover states west of the Mississippi River - still will not include all land patents in all states.
Getting the records into electronic form has been a time-consuming task for BLM. Science Applications International Corp. began in 1989 helping BLM scan the documents and also create text-based databases containing the raw information from the documents. Gegen said BLM has spent almost $9 million in the past decade digitizing the records.
SAIC uses separate servers for the text database, for the CD-ROM jukebox that holds the images of the actual documents, for Web access and for a firewall. Company officials believe other federal agenies can use the same system to give better access to public records, said David Van Audenhove, SAIC account manager at BLM.
But security and accuracy will remain a prime concern of any project along the lines of the GLO project. Van Audenhove said BLM officials double-checked the digital records for accuracy and continue to spot-check them. Moreover, Van Audenhove said workers at BLM and SAIC are mindful that the electronic records are not easily hacked because hacking could corrupt and thereby render useless the data that researchers are tapping into online. Security "was a very big concern on the part of the BLM," he said.
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