It used to be so easy.
When Middlesex County first began documenting land transactions in the seventeenth century, all that local officials needed to complete the paperwork was a book, a quill and a scribe with no taste for glamour.
But by 1985-350 years and 25,000 volumes later-the same basic system had begun to show a little wear and tear. The process of registration was too slow to keep up with the real estate market, and searching for land titles and other records was cumbersome and time-consuming.
"We had an enormous backlog, too much paper handling and an antiquated system," said Margaret V. Blaisdell, director of the management information system for Middlesex County's South Registry of Deeds. "So the county hired a consulting firm in 1985."
The consultants suggested a new computerized registry. Completed in July, Middlesex County's new system is currently the most advanced in the nation. And suddenly, East Cambridge has become a major tourist attraction in the world of municipal administration.
"We've had several registries visit from other states," Blaisdell said. "Officials have come from as far away as Washington State and Australia."
Other registries in the area do not have such advanced systems, but many are quickly following the trail which Middlesex has blazed.
"Everybody is going in the same direction, we're taking the same path to get there, but we're using different equipment," said Kevin Kinsella, administrative assistant to the Suffolk County Registry of Deeds, which is now in the process of updating its registry system. "Basically what we're looking for is a paperless society."
The impetus for Middlesex's investment was its enormous paper problem, Kinsella said. Rapid development in Middlesex coupled with the changes in the tax law in 1986 greatly increased the flow of deed transactions.
"In the past when you sold a piece of land, you got three pieces of paper. Today when a condominium sells, you may get 12 pieces of paper," Kinsella said. "It can't be handled by paper anymore."
"They just got buried by paper," Kinsella said. "As busy as we are, Middlesex was 30 to 50 percent busier."
The distinctive feature of Middlesex's new system is its combination of indexing and imaging capabilities, Blaisdell said. Computer terminals at the Registry not only enable the public to access information about deeds, but the computer image of the deed itself can be called up onto the screen. The image can then be reproduced and a copy given to the interested citizen.
Although Middlesex's computer system now only contains information entered since 1986, the county will eventually enter all information since 1956, Blaisdell said.
The system, purchased from Wang Laboratories for $2 million, was paid for out of registry funds, Blaisdell said. The Registry charges transaction fees ranging from $4 to $25 for each filing. "We are the only income-producing County agency," she said.
Most people who use the system are bankers, lawyers or other individuals interested in buying property, Blaisdell said. "You wouldn't want to buy a piece of property if the guy before you ran up a $50,000 debt on it," she said.
The County does not plan any major changes to the current system, but it does intend to expand public access to it, Blaisdell said. A telecommunications system now being tested will soon allow attorneys and bankers to access the Registry database from computer terminals in their offices, she said.