|Reading Town Clerk Laura A. Gemme stands among stacks of old records being converted into online data.|
Reading puts all records into online cloud
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As state lawmakers consider creating a municipal record preservation commission to help ensure that essential public records are protected, the sleepy suburb of Reading is emerging as a role model for small towns statewide, replacing stacks of manila folders and dusty filing cabinets with digital software.
Reading is embarking on a technological overhaul of its Town Hall and expects to expand the digital makeover to its police, fire, and school departments. Hundreds of thousands of municipal documents — some in filing cabinets accessible only by a 6-foot ladder — are being converted into online data housed on a virtual cloud, a computer system that allows anyone with an Internet connection to plug into a much larger database without storing the information locally.
“People used to ask for records and if I didn’t have them, I had to hunt them down,” said town clerk Laura A. Gemme, a former software trainer who is now overseeing Reading’s digital transformation. “I don’t have to do that now, and it’s indescribable how much time that saves.”
In the past, a single request for information could tie up an employee for several hours. Gemme recalled a search that took six days: A selectman wanted to know when and why the town had acquired Leach Park. The staff had to sort through paper records that go as far back as 1644. Had records been in digital format, that same search could have taken just a few seconds.
The Laserfiche software now in use has been embraced by about 30,000 organizations across the globe, including federal, state, and local government agencies and Fortune 1000 companies. Reading offficials are confident the new records management system will not only make it easier for employees to gain needed information, but will also make local government more accessible.
A Web portal will allow citizens to access reams of documents while curled up on the couch: the minutes of Board of Selectmen meetings, the agendas of local committees, and Town Meeting records.
“The system is very basic and intuitive,” said Town Manager Peter I. Hechenbleikner. “Even I can search it with good results — not as fast as other employees who use it a lot, but much faster than searching file cabinets.”
The software “looks a lot like Windows Explorer, so even people who aren’t tech-savvy find it easy to use and work with,” said Bruce Cadman, director of sales at General Code, the Rochester, N.Y.-based company that sells and installs the Laserfiche software.
Today, 38 municipalities in Massachusetts are using it to streamline their documents, Cadman said, freeing up office space and ensuring that all town departments have direct access to the correct version of a document. In Somerville, OpenData software by Washington-based Socrata Inc. is giving city residents unprecedented access to the work of planners and demographers.
“What is unique about Reading is how aggressively it’s deploying the software,” said Tim Wacker, spokesman for Laserfiche, which has its home office in Long Beach, Calif. He noted that the overwhelming majority of the company’s 4,000 municipal clients use the software only within Town Hall. Reading is “pushing the document management envelope,” Wacker said, by incorporating multiple town departments into its database.
The initiative was funded at the April 2007 Town Meeting, when voters approved a debt authorization of $1.25 million for a variety of technology improvements.
To date, the town has spent less than $100,000 on the document storage project, about half of the $170,000 that had been earmarked for the initiative.
Projects similar to Reading’s, though much smaller in scope, are currently underway in Andover, North Andover, and Lexington, according to Donna M. Hooper, the Lexington town clerk, who is current president of the Massachusetts Town Clerks Association.
“Reading is ahead of the curve in terms of the extent of their commitment,” Hooper said, noting that records retention, preservation, and management is a hot-button topic among municipal clerks. “In some communities, certain records are being digitized with the expectation that it will ease access. However, most communities are still microfilming records.”
In hopes of persuading more communities to recognize the importance of municipal records, the town clerks association is collaborating with the Massachusetts Archives, the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, and Simmons College on a grant application for the National Historical Publication and Records Commission to support an educational program for municipal clerks. Continued...