VALDOSTA -- To view a real estate plat, you have to visit the vault in the Lowndes County Clerk's office in the Courthouse, find the right plat book, lift and carry the enormous tome to a table and then, if you want a copy of the plat, you have to trace it. Or at least that's how it used to be.

Today, viewing a plat is as easy as clicking a computer mouse. What once took hours to accomplish now takes mere minutes.

All of the real estate plats in the courthouse have been digitized and are available electronically, via a closed system. Now anyone can visit the clerk's office and view the plats, calling them up on a bank of computers designated for the public's use. Copies of the plats are available for 25 cents.

"This is the best thing that's happened in this office since I started here 13 years ago," said Beth Carter, chief deputy clerk. "People would get so angry when they found out they had to trace the plats if they wanted a copy. Some are so detailed, it could take them hours to do."

Carter said title searchers, attorneys and the general public have all benefited from the new technology, which saves time and is much more efficient than the old system.

Mainstreet Technologies, Inc., co-founded by Lakeland natives Dalton Sirmans and Michael Jones, digitized the plats for the clerk's office. One of several companies certified in the state to perform the work, the company has digitized records for a number of counties in Georgia so far, including Lanier County, where Sirmans' mother, Martha Neugent, is the Superior Court Clerk.

According to Sirmans, one of his specialists spent weeks in the basement of the Lowndes County Courthouse, scanning plats that date back to the turn of the century. "The plats are one of the sets of records the clerk's office is required to maintain forever," said Sirmans. "Soon, they will be a part of a state wide database and you'll be able to search county by county."

Other documents the clerk's office maintains include deeds and liens, and all will be available online at some point. Attorneys and other authorized users will soon be able to pay a fee to tie into the system from their own offices and access the information without having to visit the courthouse.

The initiative to digitize the documents came through the Georgia Superior Court Clerk's Cooperative Authority, according to Sirmans. While each county is responsible for paying the cost of the project, Sirmans said the service is priced per document so that even the smallest counties can afford to participate.

In Lowndes County, the courthouse burned in 1858, so the earliest records date back to 1859. Sirmans said the records were recorded any number of ways, from bound books to acetate to slides, but are all now preserved for future generations.

Lowndes County Superior Court Clerk Sara Crow, a past president of the Authority, said it took a couple of years to save enough money from the office's funding to do the project, but it was well worth it. "All of the records are now recorded. History has been made and preserved on this system."

To contact Business Editor Kay Harris, please call 244-3400, ext. 280.

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