Historians and genealogists use the commonwealth’s 21 registries of deeds to look up historical records of the past while lawyers and homebuyers use the registry to complete deals in the present, but those overseeing the countless documents and the facilities they’re in have their eyes on the future.

Faced with a growing lack of storage space for paper records and the desire to provide customers with more convenience, registers around the country and in Massachusetts are looking toward computers and the Internet to help bring registries into the 21st century.

In Bristol County’s Fall River Registry, Register Bernard J. McDonald III said his registry has had a dial-in online service in use for about the past six years where subscribers can access information about grantors and grantees. The registry also has a Web site, www.fr-registry.com, with basic information such as registry hours and directions. But McDonald is hoping to add search capabilities to the Internet site.

“We’re moving ahead. We have the technology to get there,” McDonald said. “Right now we’re just thinking about our different options.” He added that he hopes to begin setting up an enhanced Web site within the next few months.

“We’re just a few months away from having 50 years of images scanned in,” reported Barnstable County Register John Meade. “We’re hopeful we can get together a comprehensive Internet site where people can do a 50-year title search.

“Because the area we serve is a vacation area with a lot of second-home owners, people call in from all over the country looking for information, and we try to help out,” he continued. “But [a Web site] would provide them access as easy as possible, and they won’t be limited to the hours the registry is open. By putting things on the Internet, it will greatly improve productivity.”

In Essex County’s Northern Registry in Lawrence, Register Thomas J. Burke said he, too, is looking to bring records to the Web.

“We have images back to 1994,” he reported. “We just started in February, and we sent a proposal to the state for approval. We want to make records easily accessible off-site, and right now people have to use a modem and dial in for a fee.”

But perhaps nowhere else in the state is the drive to bring the registry into the computer age more prevalent than in the Essex County Southern Registry in Salem.

The Salem registry launched its full-service Web site, www.salemdeeds.com, about two years ago and is weeks away from launching a completely updated site, according to officials there. When the site was initially launched, it was one of the first in the country that offered users access to records, and to date the site has been viewed more than 250,000 times.

“It’s really been great for the registry,” said Salem Register John L. O’Brien Jr., “not only for the notoriety it has provided the registry, but it has helped people in the conveyance, banking and lending industries.

“We’ve reduced foot traffic in the registry,” he said. “Instead of coming into the registry, people now go online. But as much publicity as we have gotten, we still have people coming in here that don’t even know the Web site exists.”

Visitors to the site can search images and indexes, and have the opportunity to view some of the state’s oldest land recording books, dating back to 1639, whose pages have been scanned in and the images made available online.

Salem Assistant Register Michael Miles said their Web site is being used as a model for similar sites across the United States. “There’s a recorder’s operation down in Georgia that had us fly down to Atlanta to meet with people at Georgia Tech,” he said. “They have plans for a site and are using ours as an example. They really put me through the wringer asking questions about our site.”

Miles said the revamped site would be simpler and faster for people to use, and would take into account suggestions from users about how to improve service.

“Private companies usually reinvent their Web sites about every six months. For us it took two years,” Miles said. “If I were working in the private sector I’d probably be fired, but on the public side and compared to other registries I think we’re doing pretty well.”

The current site recently received an award from the Smithsonian Institute for innovation, one of only 400 recipients worldwide, and is part of an exhibit at the institute’s museum in Washington, D.C.

Guinea Pigs
The registers in Salem aren’t resting on their laurels, however. Officials there are hoping to bring information such as zoning bylaws, topographical maps and recent assessment information together with the online property records.

Secretary of State William Galvin, whose office is in charge of the state-run registries, told a group of Realtors late last year that he planned to implement a system similar to the one Salem was proposing statewide.

The Salem registry requested $168,000 this year to be used for starting to add the geographic information to its current database, but the measure was vetoed by Gov. Paul Cellucci.

“Bill Galvin has been tremendous in supporting us. He understands what we’re trying to do. We were disappointed in the governor and we’re still waiting for a response as to why he did this.”

Calls to Galvin’s office for comment were not returned.

In addition to presenting paper documents on the Web, the Salem registry is also hoping to do away with some paper altogether. Using the recently passed federal e-signature bill as a guide, the registry is looking to conduct some transactions completely electronically.

“I think within six months I’ll have as part of my site, electronic recording,” Miles said. “We’re looking to do a test with five conveyancers using the e-signature law.” The Salem registry is one of a handful nationwide to explore using e-signatures. “As usual, we’ll be the guinea pig in Massachusetts for this,” he said.

One potential problem with electronic deed recording is the Massachusetts law concerning registries that requires a paper document be filed. Officials in Salem are consulting lawyers to determine the federal law’s effect on the state statute.

“We talked about the possibility of small changes in the Chapter 36 law that will allow for electronic media as opposed to paper,” Miles said.

O’Brien added that registries statewide are looking at ways to amend parts Chapter 36 that require registries to keep paper copies of recordings on hand at each registry when electronic or microfilm copies would take up a fraction of the space.

“I think most registries would like to have that option,” Miles said.

“I think all of the registries eventually have to be online,” O’Brien said. “I think it’s the wave of the future. Not a week goes by where I don’t get an e-mail from someone who visited our Web site and wants to know why they all can’t be this way.”

Registries Seeking to Bring Online Records to the Public

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 5 min