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Racing against time in Bucks County to save 300 years of land records

Robin Robinson, the county's recorder of deeds, has begun a project to preserve 700 deed books, some that date back to 1684.

Robin Robinson, Bucks County's recorder of deeds, looks through some old county deed books at the county storage facility. Robinson is initiating an effort to preserve hundreds of deed books, some of which date back to William Penn.
Robin Robinson, Bucks County's recorder of deeds, looks through some old county deed books at the county storage facility. Robinson is initiating an effort to preserve hundreds of deed books, some of which date back to William Penn.Read moreWILLIAM THOMAS CAIN / For The Inquirer

Steve Pizzollo gets chills every time he sees William Penn's signature, its looping letters inked into a deed book for farmland in what is now Bucks County.

The handwriting of the founding father of Pennsylvania has weathered the ravages of time for 334 years, most recently buried amid reams of paper inside the county's storage facility in Doylestown Township. Pizzollo, the county's second deputy recorder of deeds, thumbed through some of those volumes Wednesday, stacked on pallets in a warehouse that also holds voting machines and seasonal decorations.

Those documents show their age — frayed, yellowed, mold-stained pages, their ink faded and vanishing. Some tomes produced after the Civil War were printed on paper whose wood pulp was supplemented by cloth recycled from Union uniforms.

Now, the aging process is being slowed. Kofile Technologies, a company that specializes in preserving historical documents, has entered into a contract with the county to treat and rebind 700 of the volumes, records from 1684 to the late 1800s that also include emancipation documents for slaves and other miscellaneous recordings.

"We have to do this quickly because we have such a small window of time before the books are illegible," said Robin Robinson, the county's recorder of deeds. "And this isn't just the history of Bucks County — it's the history of this country."

The first batch of 90 books was sent to the company's Vermont office this week, paid for by record-improvement funds raised by the Recorder of Deeds Office every time someone files a mortgage or sells a property. When the process is complete, the rejuvenated records will have a shelf life of an additional 250 years.

Robinson initiated the effort not long after taking office in January. She had discovered Kofile through similar work the company had done for the county about five years ago, when it preserved farming atlases. And when Pizzollo showed her the condition that the deed books and other historical documents were in, she called for a professional opinion.

"We've had worse individual books," said Joe Degnan, the Kofile preservationist handling the project. "But as an entire collection, it's in by far the worst condition we've ever seen."

Part of that, Degnan said, is that the books, at various points in their three-century life span, were not housed in proper facilities. There are rumors that the tomes spent some years tucked away in a humid attic, he added. Their current location, a warehouse that's not climate-controlled, isn't much better.

Degnan and his team have already begun work on preserving the documents, a meticulous process that involves logging all of the information contained in each book, removing adhesive tape and other middling attempts at repairing them over the years, and treating the pages with a chemical. When finished, each page will be placed in a polyester sleeve and rebound.

He anticipates having the documents back in the county's hands no later than October. And, by then, Robinson hopes to have a second batch ready to send up to Vermont.

Part of Robinson's long-term plan, she said, is to find a dedicated, secure space for all of the county's records. She's already been promised an area for the deed books being worked on by Kofile in an office formerly occupied by the county sheriff in Doylestown.

Regardless of the books' condition, the information they contain is available elsewhere. Robinson's predecessors undertook an effort 20 years ago to transfer the pages onto microfilm, some of which was later digitized. Scars from that process are still visible in the sliced bindings on some of the books.

But the quality of that scanning is poor, according to Pizzollo. In fact, curious landowners often have to request access to the physical deed books, leading him and his staff to make the trip to the county storage facility several times a month.

"It's my responsibility, as an elected official, to preserve these records," Robinson said. "Technology is always changing, and there are always inaccuracies. We're ensuring that this information lasts."

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Funding the project, at least the initial portion, wasn't an issue. Robinson's office had an account of $250,000 in record-improvement funds built up over several years. Using it, she entered into a contract for the first batch of books with Kofile, which estimates that the full 700-book workload will cost upward of $2 million.

That contract – which pledges not to draw from the county's general fund – was approved 2-1 by the county commissioners at their Aug. 15 meeting.

The dissenting vote was Commissioner Charles Martin, who said he didn't see the value of preserving all of the documents, especially at that high a cost.

"I'm drawing a difference between old and historic, and I am willing to spend whatever it takes to save historic documents that are truly meaningful to our county," Martin said. "But to spend that money on documents that are just old, when we already have them on microfilm, well, it seems our money could be better spent."

Robinson is confident she can see the work through to completion. She and her office are applying for grant money, and are initiating a "sponsor-a-book" fund-raiser modeled after similar approaches in New England.

She's already fielded requests from a few interested donors, she said, including a builder who frequently files documents in her office and the daughter of Lucille Trench, a former county commissioner.

The county itself has tentatively promised another $250,000 from its own record-improvement fund, according to Robinson.

"We all know about Bucks' history and the role that the county played," she said. "But here, in these pages, we can actually trace that history. And that's a resource we shouldn't lose, if we can help it."