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Court clerk's office maintains microfilm records

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

A pile of white boxes was stacked in the corner of the basement office, containing reams of court documents from a 1998 murder case.

A stack of manila folders sat on the desk, containing pages of a divorce proceeding concluded a decade ago.

Mary Cawthon took the pages from the file, one at a time, and ran them through the scanner in the court clerk's records office. The scanner whirred, passed a light over the page, and record an electronic copy of the page on the computer.

"This," Cawthon said, "is full-time. We've been full-time for about 10 years."

The scanned copies of the court documents will be burned into a CD. The CD will be copied, sent out, and turned into microfilm. The microfilm versions of the court records will be filed in the back of the office on the first floor of the Harold R. Banke Justice Center.

As the new year starts, the two court clerks in the records room are finishing preserving files from 1997 and moving on to the documents from '98 -- turning the millions of paper pages into microfilm. There are newer ways of preserving documents, they know. There are newer technologies and newer methods, but the court clerk's office trusts the reliability of film.

"Long term," Cawthon said, "your film is going to last."

Some Georgia counties keep their records on CDs, but state officials say CDs should be redone and updated every five years, so the medium doesn't degrade and lose information. Microfilm, though old fashioned, has been proven to last. Once filmed and filed in two different places, the legal records of Clayton County should be preserved in perpetuity.

"The thing about microfilm is it's the one medium that we have that can last," said Linda T. Miller, the county's elected Superior Court Clerk.

"The world of technology is great, but no one can tell us how long these CDs will last. With microfilm, all I need to read it is a strong light and a magnifying glass," Miller said.

The lesson was brought home in the records office, this week, when a computer inexplicably crashed. Cawthon said she came in one morning and the computer, though working the day before without any signs of problems, wouldn't boot up. If that computer had been saving the courts records -- criminal cases, civil cases, land deeds -- they all would have disappeared "in a minute."

"Long term," she said, "your film is going to last."

It's not that the office doesn't like new technology, Chief Deputy Court Clerk Jacquline Wills points out, it's just that the era of personal computers and digital records has yet to prove its ability to last into the indefinite future.

"We're always looking at new technology," she said. "We've been to other courthouses to look at how they do things, even recently. But we have a better system than they do. A way better system."

The front of the little records office is occupied by two microfilm readers -- dinosaurs in the digital age. The back of the office is lined with file cabinets housing more than 2,700 rolls of microfilm. Each roll, Cawthon said, contains photographs of about 2,300 pages, meaning the one wall of a small room holds more than six million pages.

On an average day, Cawthon said, about a half dozen people will come into the office and ask to see one of the old documents. The rest of the time, the microfilm files sit there, preserving the county's long legal history.

The two clerks in the office work, one page at a time, running 1998's documents through the scanner, adding to the record.