BLM site earns kudos

A team from the Bureau of Land Management last week received Vice President Al Gore's Hammer Award for developing a World Wide Web site that makes land records easily accessible by genealogists and legal researchers.

The Web site, www.glorecords.blm.gov, hosts an online database of "land patents," which record the transfer of land from the federal government to private citizens. The patents were granted by the now-defunct General Land Office. Many of them date back almost 200 years and are key for real estate researchers and people investigating their family histories.

Until recently, the documents were available only by visiting a BLM records vault in Northern Virginia. BLM officials decided that digitizing the patents and making them available online would save wear and tear on the original documents and also would provide an electronic shortcut for researchers.

Now the records are available without the hassle of a visit to the BLM records vault. The Web makes them more usable, according to Jim Gegen, the architect of the site. "The federal government has all these records," he said. "Why can't the taxpayer use them?"

Researchers, or even casual visitors to the site, should find the site useful as well as easy to navigate. After arriving at the site, one click of the mouse will take visitors to a search page on which they can look for land patent information by state or by specific land patent identification number.

A mouse click on the desired state takes visitors to an online form onto which they can type the name of the land "patentee"—a great-grandfather, perhaps—or more specific information on the piece of land they are researching. Visitors also have the option of narrowing their search to a specific county.

Once visitors have filled out the form, they can view the results either by name, preferable for family history researchers, or by land title number, which is more useful for legal researchers.

The Web site coordinates the requests to its server using cookies—messages sent from the site's server to the computer user's Web browser and used as a shortcut for the server to recall information such as a user's password.

Cookies allow Webmasters to get a glimpse into the habits of Web surfers, and computer users often express paranoia over the use of cookies. Gegen said, however, that BLM does not keep the cookie information after a visitor is finished with the site. "As soon as your session ends, that's just erased from the server itself," he said.

Search results on the site are straightforward, using plain text that includes the land patentee's name and the date on which the land patent was recorded. But the results also include a detailed land description that most people will not understand, with words such as "aliquot," "range" and "meridian."

Search results also return an option to view an image of the actual historical document in Tagged Image File format. Moreover, the site lets users order a certified copy of the document. With a few clicks of the mouse and a few keystrokes, visitors can place their orders and pay online using Visa or MasterCard, or they can pay by check after placing their orders online.

Gegen said BLM uses security software from VeriSign Inc. to handle the electronic transactions. BLM considered using a Microsoft Corp. product, but that product might have proved a little confusing to users because it presented too many message windows, he said.

Regardless of whether a user buys online, the site should provide a window into the westward expansion of the United States, Gegen said. Close to 2 million records covering 12 states are on the site now, and more documents are being added. When the project is complete, the site will contain almost 5 million records and cover 30 states.

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