WHITMAN — Say you needed an old file from Whitman Town Hall. Depending on its age and subject matter, it could either be close at hand or require a search of file cabinets or temporary file boxes in offices all over the building — if you are lucky.
A tour of file storage locations shows records filling old vaults, spaces under exterior and interior stairs, the two stories of former book stacks in the wing of the building that used to house the library, boiler and storage rooms, and the cells of the former police station.
They are also stored in a custodial closet containing an inaccessible, but working, toilet that must be flushed once a week lest the water evaporate and cause a buildup of sewer gases. More are kept on the landing and steps of the second floor behind the auditorium.
“What I’m seeking to do is install a record carriage system so that we can store a large quantity of records in compact spaces,” Town Administrator Frank Lynam said of a Tuesday, March 22 vote of the Board of Selectmen to authorize a warrant article for $53,000 to seek funding for the project. “It would enable us to place records that are very haphazardly placed everywhere in the Town Hall and kind of bring them together and organize them, inventory them and have them where they are accessible and reasonably secure. Right now they are in every nook and cranny of the building.”
One of the storage systems will be placed in the selectmen’s office, allowing access from two sides and will compress files to fit more into the space. Four more will be placed in a room behind the lower Town Hall meeting room that is temperature and humidity-controlled to adequately protect records.
“It’s a short-term solution,” Lynam said. “It’s a good solution for five years or so. At some point, we’ll have to have a more viable solution, and I think [the key] is actually getting the state to come into the 21st Century and accept the concept of electronic archiving.”
Lynam had also discussed the situation with the Buildings, Facilities and Capital Expenditures Committee on Thursday, March 3.
“One of our worst traits, or characteristics, is record storage,” he told the committee. “We’re not in compliance with state law in terms of how to preserve records and we’re not in compliance with good business practices on how to secure and protect those records.”
Lynam contacted the state storage system contractor, Delegate Systems, to conduct a site visit and provide a design and estimates on a solution. Their initial quote included $14,864.75 for rotating storage in the selectmen’s office, he said.
Among the problems the system would help solve is the long-term storage of personnel records, according to Lynam.
The state archivist has told town officials that some records, including minutes from meetings, which must be easily retrieved as hard copies, cannot be digitized. Under current state law, for example, e-mails exchanged between public officials must be printed out with hard copies kept on file.
About 20-to-30 percent of files can be stored electronically, but is an expensive project, Lynam cautioned.
“And it won’t replace the need for storage,” he said. “They (state archivists) had consistently rejected it because their concern was, if we create a file today, will we be able to read it 20 years from now. Paper is constant.”
During the five to seven years of secure, organized filing that the new system will buy for the town, Lynam suggested perhaps some method of long-term accessibility to digitized records could be developed. The problem, however, is here now.
“In the big picture, this is not a lot of money to address the issue we’re addressing,” he said.
“I think it’s way past due,” said Building Inspector Robert Curran, a member of the Buildings, Facilities and Capital Expenditures Committee.
Member Christopher Powers voiced support for a more long-term solution, such as electronic storage.
“We’re eventually going to end up there,” Lynam said. “This is something happening all around us and we’re going to be part of that movement.”