The town of Wilmington, Vt., had a serious record-keeping scare in the summer of 2011 when waters from Tropical Storm Irene flooded its downtown area and compromised the safety of important municipal files stored at the Wilmington Town Offices located in the immediate area. Mercifully, according to The Brattleboro Reformer, the damage to the documentation was minimal – but only thanks to the quick thinking of Town Clerk Susie Haughwout, who rescued the files just in the nick of time.
"Had we not done that, the records would have been damaged and potentially lost," said Haughwout, as quoted by the news source.
However, some of the other documents that were left behind – including school records – ended up being destroyed when the banks of the nearby Deerfield River burst and spilled into the heart of the town. This served as a glaring wake-up call to municipal officials, who up until that point had considered Wilmington's paper-based system of record-keeping to be sufficient.
In the wake of the devastation, local officials applied for a disaster recovery grant in order to obtain the necessary funding to leverage document conversion services and digitize its records, with the goal of ensuring that no matter what disasters befall the Wilmington Town Offices in the future, the town's data will be safe. At last month's Selectboard meeting, Town Manager Scott Murphy announced that the application had been approved, meaning that the town will receive $157,542 for the estimated $173,000 project and will only have to come up with the remaining 10 percent of the funds by itself, the news source explained.
Wilmington will leverage document imaging services and document storage solutions to digitize approximately 200,000 pages of records spanning the entire history of the town and dating back several centuries. The data will eventually be consolidated and made available via a searchable digital documentation library that Murphy described as "very hands-on and accessible for the public," according to The Reformer.
"What this grant will allow me to essentially do is take records from April of 2013 back to the beginning of records in the vault, which is 1797, and be able to begin the process of digitizing land records, some vital records, town meeting records, survey maps and town reports, among other miscellaneous documents," explained Haughwout, as quoted by the media outlet. "The reason this qualified was because the records are back when the event occurred, so they are still potentially at risk for a flooding hazard."
Why should towns digitize their documentation?
Digitizing municipal records offers myriad benefits. The obvious advantage in light of Wilmington's previous brush with danger is the ability to safeguard important documents in case of an event that compromises physical records, whether this takes the form of a natural disaster – like a hurricane – or a man-made catastrophe, such as a fire. However, other perks of digitization include the potential to access records remotely and look at specific files at the same time as other people, a streamlined search process, an automated system of organization and more environmentally friendly daily operations.
That said, it's not just municipalities that stand to benefit from paper conversion services, as companies across virtually all industries can as well. After all, when Tropical Storm Irene hit, it didn't only affect government organizations – a large number of businesses were impacted as well, and for those without adequate document backup measures, the results had the potential to be catastrophic.