Vinegar Syndrome Is Eating Away Cook County History

Cook County Recorder microfilm vault 1
Rachel Jordan, director of informational retrieval at the Cook County Recorder of Deeds office, holds up microfilm infected with vinegar syndrome next to a healthier one. Linda Lutton / WBEZ
Cook County Recorder microfilm vault 1
Rachel Jordan, director of informational retrieval at the Cook County Recorder of Deeds office, holds up microfilm infected with vinegar syndrome next to a healthier one. Linda Lutton / WBEZ

Vinegar Syndrome Is Eating Away Cook County History

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The Cook County Recorder of Deeds office has a stinky problem.

Potentially millions of records on microfilm have what’s called vinegar syndrome. That happens when acetate film, like in old movie reels or government microfilm, is stored in hot, humid rooms. It gives off a pungent odor.

“Really strong, like you poured a bottle of vinegar on your face,” said Jim Gleffe, the county’s chief deputy recorder.

Experts say the disease is contagious and inevitable, and it’s happening to government records across the country. Pieces of history are literally disintegrating.

Here’s Cook County’s plan to address it: digitize as much healthy microfilm as it can, and digitize paper copies of the records housed in warehouses.

Then, destroy the most damaged microfilm to prevent vinegar syndrome from spreading. That includes likely tossing the oldest microfilm — and history — the recorder’s office has, records from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 to 1959.

The goal is lofty. It could be expensive and take years to complete. And critics worry they’ll lose quick access to documents.

Inside the vault

The Cook County Recorder of Deeds office is a place people might use only a few times in their lives, but it’s a significant stop. People need it, for example, if they want to buy or sell their homes. It’s also a place historians and students go to conduct research.

“We’ve had people come here and look into redlining,” said Rachel Jordan, director of informational retrieval at the recorder’s office. “We had historians come here to kind of track, they think there was a guy, a doctor that had a property here that may have actually been Jack the Ripper.”

She’s referring to the serial killer from the late 1800s.

The recorder’s office houses tens of millions of records on microfilm dating back to 1871. The records are inside what’s known as the microfilm vault in the basement of the recorder’s downtown office. Records dating to 1985 are already digitized and available online.

The trove of records include deeds, mortgages and documents, including some that reveal restrictions that banned African Americans from owning homes in parts of Chicago.

Cook County Recorder microfilm vault 2
This massive index at the Cook County Recorder of Deeds office shows the subdivision where Al Capone’s mother, Theresa Capone, and his wife, Mae Capone, bought a home in Chicago in 1923. Their names are listed at the bottom of the index. Kristen Schorsch / WBEZ

And even though the office is important, it’s old-school. Many of the electronic drawers inside the 30-year-old machines that house the microfilm are broken. Ron Hill, who works for a title company, uses a hand crank to get the thin strips of film out.

“For this little thing that weighs about the size of a first class letter, you have to put in gym time,” Hill said with a laugh during a recent cranking session.

A stinky problem

The vault’s problem with vinegar syndrome is spreading. Gleffe said the oldest microfilm — potentially up to 35 million records from 1871 to 1959 — will likely have to be destroyed. A small percentage of the 24 million images that cover the following 25 years or so likely will have to go too.

“It’s a serious problem that’s been growing worse over several years,” Gleffe said. “You could call it an epidemic.”

Gleffe said the office has paper copies of records on the oldest microfilm from 1871 to 1959 in warehouses. But the county does not have paper duplicates of records on microfilm from the next era, up until around 1985. For those, Gleffe said there might be microfilm backups in the warehouses that they could copy, but the quality of those duplicates is questionable because they too could already have vinegar syndrome. 

Gleffe has been in the recorder’s office since 2014. He was chief legal counsel for former Recorder Karen Yarbrough before Edward Moody got the top job in December and kept Gleffe on staff.

There are file cabinets in the vault full of diseased film that’s hardening into something like a hockey puck. The county already has boxed up some of the microfilm to help preserve what’s left.

“This is some of the real bad film that’s in real disrepair,” Jordan said recently as she flipped through a batch of warped microfilm. “It sticks together. In some parts, you can’t see the actual documents.”

Cook County officials are not the only ones dealing with this issue. Rebekah Davis is president of the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators, and she’s an archivist in Limestone County, Alabama. She said governments across the country are familiar with the dangers of vinegar syndrome wiping out their histories.

“It’s something that we have to keep a check on,” Davis said.

Monique Fischer is a photo conservator who helped invent test strips that measure how bad vinegar syndrome is. She said the disease spreads through the acid in the air, and eventually, all acetate film will get infected.

“We want to preserve collections for future generations,” Fischer said. “I think if these things aren’t cared for, they’re going to disappear.”

Gleffe estimates digitizing more records in Cook County — those since 1985 are already online — could cost at least $5 million. The recorder’s office likely would hire a vendor through a bidding process, he said.

Paying for this could be tough. Cook County’s budget season gets underway in the coming months, and the recorder’s office will be competing for precious government dollars.

Will access continue?

Title company employees in particular are worried about losing quick access to documents. They’re in the microfilm vault every day pulling all sorts of property records for things like real estate closings.

The warehouses where paper copies of original documents are kept are off-limits to the public. The county must retrieve records that people request.

“Everything needs to be done quickly in this business,” said Augie Butera, senior vice president and general counsel of Attorneys’ Title Guaranty Fund, Inc., a title insurance company. “Now, if we need that document, we have to put it on a list. The county has to send somebody to this warehouse to get these documents, and frankly we’re not getting them quick enough. It’s taken weeks before we get a copy of that document.”

Butera is a former president of the Illinois Land Title Association, an organization of title companies, and worked at the recorder’s office decades ago.

Gleffe said he hopes to address those concerns for now by hiring a vendor that can quickly scan documents and fulfill requests within a day or two.

WBEZ reporter Linda Lutton contributed.

Kristen Schorsch covers Cook County politics for WBEZ. Follow her @kschorsch.