In less than two years, Chester County’s most historic documents will be available online. Thanks to improved scanning equipment, Chester County’s Archives & Records Services has accelerated the process of scanning and digitizing documents dating back to 1681. The goal: To make the collection publicly available on the County’s website so that people can easily acquire historic information.
The County installed a new scanner in January 2020 right before COVID hit, making this project possible. The department had been working with a less sophisticated scanner since 2007. To date, about 40 percent of the Archives’ collection has been digitized.
“Our goal is to have everything that is considered a historic, permanent record digitized,” said Chester County Commissioners’ Chair Marian Moskowitz. “Some of the conversions are from microfilm to digital, while others are from the physical documents themselves to digital. The process of scanning originals is slow because they must be handled so delicately, and we are talking about 340 years of history here.”
A climate-controlled room at the County’s Government Services Center in West Chester houses the documents and keeps them stable. Temperature and humidity fluctuations degrade paper, so the storage room temperature always remains roughly 65 degrees with 45% relative humidity.
“The primary goal of our department is the long-term preservation of and access to the historic records of the County,” said Archives & Records Director Cliff Parker. “Once they are digitized, we hope that the originals will not be handled ever again.”
The upgraded scanner has a superior lens and creates images faster than the model it replaced, purchased in 2007. The new technology scans documents in color and at a higher DPI (dots per inch), so the image quality is sharper. In addition, technology has made storage space much less expensive, allowing easier storage of larger files.
The new machine can scan records up to 1,000 dpi, but Chester County Archives scans documents such as court records, deed books, and estate files at 300 dpi, which is the archival standard for text-based documents. The collection includes very limited visual media like photographs, which are scanned at 600 dpi.
Parker, who served as the County’s archivist for 20 years before becoming director, noted that one of the documents now being scanned is the first Chester County court docket documenting the County’s earliest governmental activities from 1681-1697. A second corresponding volume spans 1697-1710.
The docket records every function of County government, including row offices, administrative functions, and court activity.
“William Penn did not arrive in his newly-acquired North American colony until October 28, 1682, so some documents started before William Penn ever set foot in Pennsylvania,” Parker exclaimed.
“It’s exciting to know we will be able to search all kinds of records online, trace family lineage and other aspects of the county’s long and rich history,” said Commissioner Josh Maxwell. “Our records bring so many aspects of former years – former centuries – to life. If you’re looking for your Chester County ancestors or noted individuals, odds are they’re going to be captured in the archives, from tax records to Poor House records to property records.”
Chester County’s Poor House was established in 1800 in West Bradford for the employment and support of the poor in the county. Poor and elderly people with physical and mental disabilities went there.
Interestingly, while the County preserves every existing physical record created before 1920, retention policy changes meant that only certain documents were maintained after that time. Today, less than 10 percent of the records created by the County each year is considered a permanent record of historical value.
Commissioner Michelle Kichline said this conversion project is about access. The problem with storing records on microfilm, she said, is that the user needs a machine to look them up, and nobody is selling or repairing those machines as they break down.
In addition, most of the County’s microfilm is stored offsite. The Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission has a microfilm security storage program. If a user wants to view a document, the commission must make a duplicate and send it to Chester County, making for a lengthy process.
“As we approach the nation’s 250th birthday in 2026, people may focus as much on Chester County’s history as they do on America’s history,” said Kichline, head of the Chester County America250PA Commission. “It will be a wonderful advance to be able to sit at your computer and look up and see scans of these interesting and invaluable documents.”