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Olympia, WA 98502



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Tumwater, WA 98512

Clerk Instigates Imaging Project for pre-1997 Cases

Cases which were filed prior to 1997 are being removed from the Clerk's vaults and transported off site for imaging.  The first case types to be imaged are criminal and domestic relations.  When needing copies from a file which has been moved off site, please provide the Clerk's Office with several day's. The following article was reported by the Tacoma News Tribune on  April 28th, 2003.


Thurston protects the past - Thurston County Clerk Betty Gould, foreground, and records manager Celeste Dodd search early court records at the courthouse for notable entries. The 15 million court papers on file will be digitally copied.

Saving a paper trail of state's history

CECILIA NGUYEN; The News Tribune

Electronic court documents soon will replace the dusty, timeworn leather bound records stacked in the Thurston County Clerk's Office.

Thurston County Clerk Betty Gould recently began a yearlong task of digitally copying about 15 million pages of court papers that date as far back as 1847, 42 years before Washington became a state.

The electronic imaging project will preserve important state and county documents still valued by attorneys, historians, legislators and those intrigued with Washington's past, Gould said.

Court rulings, wills, civil and criminal cases and other documents offer insight into what life was like on the Washington frontier.

For instance, people were once fined $1 for selling "spirituous" liquor to the American Indians in the 1800s. And Civil War and other history buffs have used old court documents to learn what past soldiers or local militia members wore, state archivist Jerry Handfield said.

Arthur Denny, who founded the City of Seattle in 1852 with a party of immigrants, was a former Thurston County commissioner, when the county's borders reached as far north as the U.S.-Canadian border.

"It's been like finding buried treasure," Gould said.

The $450,000 electronic imaging project will free up much-needed storage space within the clerk's 1,000-square-foot records vault and save the county money, Gould said. The bulky, oversized books and folders take up about $98,000 worth of storage costs a year.

Digitally scanning all of the documents also will allow more people to review the court records hundreds of years from now, she added.

Once the pages have been copied, the clerk's office will send all of the bound records and loose paper documents dated before 1931 to the state auditor's archives department, where they'll be preserved with the state constitution and legislative bills. The county will shred all paper files with little historical significance dated after 1930.

"It's really hard to give these up," Gould said. "We've learned to really love them."

Several of the books have begun to deteriorate and the ink has faded in many of the manuscripts. The warm, well-lighted archives vault - and time - have contributed much of the wear, Gould said.

The ideal condition for storing paper documents is a cool, dry and low-lighted room, Handfield said. Unstable humidity and temperature causes paper to expand and contract, making the fibers more likely to break, he added.

It's important to protect the court documents because the old records still have legal importance, Gould said. For example, attorneys and people still request the old court records for genealogy, probate files, adoptions and real estate issues.

The aesthetics of the books bound in rich leather and lined with gilded paisley paper are just as alluring as what's written inside.

Back then, court manuscripts were written in a floral, artistic calligraphy now seen only on fancy invitations. In one 1895 court book, a clerk wrote a memoriam of Elisha P. Ferry, the state's first governor, that included a flawless headstone-like illustration.

Clerks most likely were hired for their penmanship, Gould quipped.

The next step, Gould said, is to find and preserve recent landmark court rulings at the state archives, so they won't get shredded along with the less historically significant papers.

Gould has asked former judges and past elected officials to list cases that have influenced state and local history in the past 50 to 60 years.

The clerk's office also has asked if citizens know of any court cases that may be have importance to the state or county.

There are many great nuggets of facts and information to be found, said State Sen. Karen Fraser (D-Olympia), a former Thurston County commissioner.

Many lawsuits that affected the entire state were filed in the county because Olympia is the state capital, Fraser added.

For instance, a court ruling in the 1961 preserved Olympia as the state capital. Before that, several state agencies moved their headquarters north to Seattle and some wanted the state's largest city to be the capital.

In 1975, a Thurston County Superior Court case ruled that the state had a duty to define basic education and fund it. That case later was upheld in the State Supreme Court.

"The clerk's files have got to be a huge repository of local and state history that should not be lost," Fraser said. "And a lot of it isn't written up anywhere else."


Cecilia Nguyen: 253-597-8692

(Published 12:30AM, April 28th, 2003)

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