After eight years of work, the Lincoln County Registry of Deeds’ complete files dating back to 1761 have been scanned and made publicly searchable on the county website.
“It’s changed everything here,” Register of Deeds Rebecca Wotton said. “It’s almost unbelievable that there are only two people running this office now. It really is.”
Thousands of records of deeds, land disputes, divorces, foreclosures, and liens recorded in Wiscasset over the centuries have been transferred to the site in a gradual shift to online recordkeeping. Wotton said the internet has changed the size and operations of the registry in dramatic ways since she began working there three decades ago.
Other Maine counties are making the same transition to digitized records or have already, according to Wotton, though it may have been faster for them. Lincoln County shares a birthday with Cumberland County as the state’s second-oldest, meaning more years of files for the Wiscasset office.
With the move now complete, anyone can now view images freely using a guest account on the county website, or register in order to print files. By state statute, users must be charged after 500 copies.
The office has reached its 6,000th record book. While Wotton said getting a total number is difficult, the last batch of digitized microfilm, spanning 1761 to 1833, contained 78,783 items.
According to Wotton, the registry stopped printing record books on paper in favor of digital files in 2015 and began the digitizing process for older records around that time.
Paper records were backed up on microfilm in previous decades, which the county then sent to New York to be digitized by outside vendors. Registry staff then indexed the images at the courthouse.
The microfilm is also in backup at the Maine State Archives, a bureau of the Department of Secretary of State, in Augusta.
“We’ve been picking away at doing this project, and then I think when COVID hit, it just kind of accelerated it,” Wotton. “We just were like, ‘OK, we need to get this all online,’ because it was hard for people doing the work (in person). It was tough.”
When she started working at the registry 31 years ago, the office had eight full-time staff members finding files for attorneys, title companies, and land surveyors. Today, there is a staff of two.
The office has moved into a smaller room of the courthouse and receives a handful of mail every day rather than the stacks of days gone by, Wotton said. The shape of the work has changed, but it still keeps the office busy,
“It’s not necessarily less work, because we’re still looking at every page, but it’s clicking rather than flipping,” she said.
Electronic filing has also come to the office over the last few years, allowing attorneys to submit online rather than journeying to the courthouse in person.
Wotton said she has grown up along with the digital developments taking place at the registry.
“Being here for so long and opening the books … and then all of a sudden not having that piece of paper was scary at first, but it’s all good,” she said.
The project was funded by a reserve account for preservation and records management that comes from a state statute requiring a $3 surcharge for documents recorded, except for those filed by towns.
The archives room in the courthouse basement still houses printed record books from 1761 to the mid-20th century. Registry staff will next double-check each page of the scanned files against the originals of printed books before parting with the extras.
Earlier handwritten books will remain at the courthouse or may end up in the Augusta archives, Wotton said. Though the Lincoln County archives are not open to the public due to the age and delicacy of the records, copies of pages are available on request.
“Sometimes people just want to look at that handwriting,” she said.
Wotton, who was born and raised in Bristol, said examining every page of the county’s deeds over the years has been fun for her. She recognizes parcels her family members once owned and can guess 90% of the time where a piece of land is located just by the owner’s last name.
The registry is also reviewing scans of property surveys dating back to the 1800s for public use online.
“Change is hard, but I think we’re getting used to it,” Wotton said.
To view Registry of Deeds records, go to lincolncountymaine.me.