His hands fitted in blue nitrile gloves, county archivist Pierce Flanagan gingerly pulled back the pages of a stack of county land records dating to 1855, hunting for metal.
Staples, straight pins, paper clips, eyelets, rivets and grommets. The fasteners Flanagan finds in the documents that come across his desk get pulled, removed and unstuck before they're tossed in a growing pile on his desk.
Then they're passed along to the next person in the office of imaging operations at Hennepin County where paper clip by paper clip, page by page, workers are cleaning up old records, taping the tears and frayed edges and scanning them to create digital files for the public to access online.
It's tedious work for the staffers who day by day for the past several years have scanned millions of pages. County attorney records, autopsies from the medical examiner, abstracts and plat maps and all manner of county records documenting everything from child support to budgets and board meetings are being digitized.
Some county records already were available online when the project got underway about six years ago, but with so many paper records still in storage, the county's IT department started to chip away at the problem with the first big scanning push in 2017.
Jill Aldes, the county's imaging operations manager, said they started by imaging 7 million pages from the county attorney's office. It took more than two years and seven county staff set up an office in a windowless basement room of the government center.
By the time the project ended, there was momentum to scan more documents. Today a staff of about 20 works for the Imaging Operations office within the county's IT Department.
The pandemic only accelerated the county's push to get things online, said spokesperson Luann Schmaus. Not only will the public benefit with easier access to county records, but county employees working at home who need to quickly access documents will be able to more easily do so.
"The pandemic pushed up the timeline," Schmaus said.
Starting in November 2020, the imaging operations crew started working through county land records known as Torrens. The records show who owns a piece of land, along with any encumbrances. So far, Aldes said, they've digitized some 2 million pages and are nearly 95 percent of the way through.
One of those records landed on Flanagan's desk this week, and as he pulled metal from the stack he read that it was for a parcel of land in the "Bradford and Russels" addition of Minneapolis.
The record showed that a man named Joel Bassett bought the parcel from the U.S. government on April 27, 1855. Today, the land is home to a single-story office building at the corner of East Lyndale Avenue and Olson Memorial Highway.
There's plenty of the county's history waiting to be scanned. The imaging office has 600 boxes of old medical examiner files stacked in a room next to the main scanning area, ready to be digitized.
And there's another 27,000 boxes of documents – each box is a "banker's box" about the size of a microwave oven – waiting in the county's off-site storage area managed by Iron Mountain, a publicly traded company that stores data and documents at sites around the world.
To do the work, the imaging office preps the documents for scanning. People like Flanagan pull out any bits of metal . Rips and frayed edges are smoothed over with clear tape to ensure the document will slide through the scanner.
Everything must remain in order and in its correct file before it's sent to people like Mabel Houle. Using an older scanner, the now discontinued Kodak i4200, Houle can scan up to 100 pages a minute. A newer scanner could work at a faster rate, but the county staff think it's more likely that an aggressive scanner would tear some of the fragile documents.
"These aren't just records; they're people's lives," Hennepin County records coordinator John Jensen said .
After each scan, Houle compares the new image to the original paper document to make sure a good picture was taken. Some images require a second pass.
There's little time to read the documents, but Houle notices things like the names of newspapers where the documents were printed. The Weekly Mirror comes up sometimes. It published from 1894 to 1978. Houle has seen three-digit phone numbers. "And lots of Mabels," Houle said.
Some of the other things they've learned: The onion-skin paper used 100 years ago is fragile, but it's held up much better than the fax paper of the 1980s. The ink from 30-year-old faxes "is just gone," Aldes said. Fabric-based tape yellows and ages and the scanner can't read the text underneath the tape.
Some documents are destroyed after they're scanned, but the abstracts will be saved. Any document that seems to have historic value gets passed along to archives around the state.
Paper usually lasts about 100 years, Jensen said. That's why paper records will be digitized first. Once done, the imaging group could turn to microfilm records and other types of media stored in boxes in the basement of the government center, like the Betamax tapes once used to record county board meetings.
The 27,000 boxes left at Iron Mountain alone will take another five years.
"We have years of work," Jensen said.