High-Tech Howdy

Rep. Lamar Smith’s Office Unveils Electronic Guest Book

Posted March 12, 2004 at 2:28pm

While visitors to every other Congressional office probably brush off their encounters with Members’ guest books during visits to Capitol Hill, Rep. Lamar Smith’s (R-Texas) sign-in process has become a state-of-the-art event these days.

The curvy metallic machine placed outside Smith’s door sits in sharp contrast to the traditional wooden stands and paper guest books that greet visitors everywhere else on Capitol Hill — mainly because Smith’s guest book actually does greet people.

Last month, Smith replaced his old, paper-and-pen guest book with an interactive, ultra-modern, electronic guest book. The new touch-screen, talking machine not only records names and information about the Congressman’s guests but also provides visitors with a wealth of other useful information.

“We’ve gone from low-tech to high-tech,” Smith said

with a smile and a hint of pride in his voice as he waved his hand down the hallway toward the doorways of some of his fellow Members.

The $5,800 machine — which was purchased from Bethesda, Md.-based Volpone Productions — allows visitors to sign up for newsletters, get notification of town meetings back in Texas, view a constituent photo album and brush up on Smith’s biography before they enter his office.

“You sign in but you do more than sign in. It saves tremendously on staff time and effort,” Smith said before adding with a laugh, “it also occupies constituents who get here too early.”

Other features of the electronic guest book include video tours of the Capitol, White House, Supreme Court and Lincoln Memorial. It also boasts “a little provincialism,” including information about Smith’s home district and histories on two Texas heroes whose statues appear in the Capitol — Sam Houston and Stephen Austin.

“It’s the Cliffs Notes version of how to see the sights of the Capitol,” Smith said. “If they don’t take the hour tour, at least they’ll have a mini-introduction here.”

Smith said the machine has gone over well with constituents, and sometimes his staffers even have to pull visitors away from the guest book in order to get them into meetings on time.

Smith, who is chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee on courts, the Internet and intellectual property as well as a member of the Science Committee, said his office purchased the electronic guest book as a way to showcase new technology development. The Central Texas-based Congressman has been very active in pushing technology legislation, recently sponsoring two bills — one on patents and the other on cooperative research enhancement — which have appeared on the House floor in the past few weeks.

Smith said that since he began using the new guest book fellow Members have asked him about it, and he thinks it might begin to catch on in other offices.

“It’s the first of its kind on the Hill. It takes care of a lot of tasks that we would end up doing ourselves,” Smith said, adding that being rid of the old paper guest books shows his office is forward-looking and high-tech oriented. Also, “sometimes we couldn’t read people’s handwriting,” he said.