VERNON -- For Vernon Town Clerk Sandy Harris, it's "the most important project in town."
She's referring to digitizing tens of thousands of pages of land records -- documents that are essential to every property transaction.
The Selectboard has backed that effort by hiring a Massachusetts company to assist town employees in scanning every page in Vernon's voluminous collection.
It's a time-consuming and potentially expensive effort, but one that Harris believes must be a top priority.
"I don't think people realize how valuable these records are," she said.
Vernon's town records have been ravaged by disaster in the past: Harris can name at least four occasions, including a fire in 1797, when vital documents were destroyed.
Because of that, "we don't have complete records," she said.
Harris, who also serves on the Selectboard, wants to ensure that it doesn't happen again. The destruction wrought by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 was a wake-up call, she said.
"If you have no land records, how do you have a grand list?" Harris said. "You've got to have documentation to get a mortgage. You've got to have documentation to get a clear title."
Harris said the state used to preserve those paper documents on microfilm but stopped that practice a few years ago. So last year, she began scanning the town's records to create digital files.
She said the project has several benefits:
-- Ease of access: Residents will be able to search land records on a public computer at the town office rather than going through paper files.
That system is not yet ready but could be partially online within a month, Harris said.
-- Record preservation: Documents will last longer because "you won't have to actually touch the records" to find pertinent information, Harris said.
-- A backup system: Harris said the documents will be digitally backed up off site to ensure their preservation in the event of a catastrophe at the town office.
But much work remains. Harris said "not quite a third" of the town's records have been scanned, leaving at least 50,000 pages still to go.
That's where Waltham, Mass.-based Computer Imaging Systems comes in. At a cost of about 40 cents per page, the company will assist in scanning Vernon's records.
Harris emphasized that CIS will not be handling the entire backlog.
"We're going to continue scanning, too," she said. "It's just so we have some help."
The company will be paid through a restoration fund that is fed by document-recording fees, Harris said.
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.