Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Methods for organizing records

As you explore records in government repositories, government offices, courthouses, and even businesses, you will encounter a wide variety of organizational methods. Some systems are straightforward and organize records alphabetically or chronologically, or by classification numbers as in libraries. These simple methods are great for single subject materials such as obituaries, or correspondence.

When looking at court records or land records, those items are arranged differently by their very natures, and the indices are a little more complex. Let's start with court records. They are usually arranged physically by case number. That's the unique identifying number that pulls all the documents together. Sometimes the case numbers begin with at one each year. In other cases, they are just sequential from the first hearing to today. No matter what, the records and dockets (which provide a summary of all events in a case and are arrange in case number) pull the documents together. That's the records. What about accessing the records? You need to index the cases and that's complex.

Court records for civil and criminal, probate and domestic cases are usually index by plaintiff and defendant. But what about multiple plaintiffs and defendants? Each needs its own entry. And what about paper indices or ledgers, how do you keep the entries alphabetical? The short answer is, you don't. The records are arranged somewhat alphabetically in chronological order. The keys to the indices tell you what page to put the names on. Some of the alphabetizing systems use the first letter of last and first names, others use the first few letters of the last name, and still others use first letter last name and the first vowel. No matter the system, the names are then entered chronologically. Believe it or not, the system works well. Each entry then references the case number which is then easily retrieved.  For an online system, the same should hold true. The names of all parties are entered into the index and each entry contains the case number. The most problematic issue is if the clerks decide to list only the first plaintiff and defendant. Be careful, sometimes clerks use "Heirs of" and "Estate of" as names, in which case it is almost impossible to find the person and case you seek.

When looking for deeds and other records dealing with land, there are two basic systems for organizing indices, alphabetical as described above and geographical. Geographical or abstracted land records are indexed by legal description. You'll find the legal description by checking the Auditor's records which coordinate street and legal address and also provide parcel or land identification numbers. Geographical indices are great because they co-locate all documents or transactions for a particular legal description on one or two pages, or maybe a few more depending upon how the legal descriptions are differentiated. If you live in a county or state with Torrens, then all transactions for a specific piece of land is entered on a single page or two along with all court actions. Most land in Ohio, with the exception of Hamilton County (where Cincinnati is located) is no longer under Torrens, but the system exists and existed in other counties in Ohio and in other states in the US. I believe there are other countries that also use the Torrens system.

Of course, this is just a sampling of the types of organizational methods for records. The farther back in time you go, the less familiar these systems become. There's a nice article on Collation that describes 17th century filing systems http://collation.folger.edu/2013/03/filing-seventeenth-century-style/