Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat

Soon, those looking for vital records in Tuolumne County won't have to flip through stacks of books in the recorder's office or scan through microfiche.

The county's Office of Assessor-Recorder is in the midst of a project to update and digitize the majority of the county's official records. In the coming months, millions of records will be transferred into digital documents and organized into a searchable database.

The documents will include birth, death and genealogical records, maps, property information and other historical information that have required the public to search through thick, cumbersome record books or on film in the county archives.

"There's just a wealth of information out there that could be searched by the public," said Ken Caetano, the county's assessor-recorder.

The county Board of Supervisors approved the project last month, after Caetano informed the board that about half of the counties in the state have digitized their records.

The project, which will cost $83,800 up front and $4,800 annually for maintenance, will allow up to 1,000 rolls of microfiche to be transferred to searchable PDF files. Caetano said that will account for between 2.5 million and 3 million documents - most of the documents in the Assessor-Recorder's office.

The changes will not only offer easier access for the public, but it will also help protect the "historic" and in some cases "priceless" documents stored in a county that boasts a rich Gold Rush past, he said.

"You no longer have to handle those books," said Caetano, who said the office literally stores "tons" of record books. "They are truly historic artifacts."

Private contractor BMI Imaging Services will take several months to process the documents. In cases where the documents were made with typewriters or printed, the software will allow for detailed word-specific searches. Many of the documents made around or before the 1930s were handwritten and will still be archived digitally.

Members of the public will still have to go to an official location like the recorder's office or library to search, as the information will not be freely accessible on the Internet. The county will still store and archive the existing documents.

Caetano said the county will not have to look far for the funds. Past county leaders set a dollar charge for every document recorded and places it in a trust fund that is earmarked specifically for this kind of work. To date, that fund exceeds $200,000.

"It's going to be really exciting to see it in person," he said. "I think we're catching up with what a lot of the other archivers are doing."