Though the state is proud to be building the first digital archive of its kind, Reed acknowledges there is a reason it's currently the only such undertaking - creating such an entity has raised complicated issues surrounding policy, collection of data and technology.

The first draft of a policy intended to put a formal procedure in place for collecting digital records did not go over well.

"In the first draft we said we wouldn't accept disks, and employees of each agency had to go through a lot more work to send us stuff," Excell said. "Preventing them from sending stuff in on disk made it difficult for them, and they were just trashing some of that stuff, which didn't help our efforts in the long run."

After collecting input from other agencies, the Secretary of State's office changed its approach. The policy is now in its third draft and the new proposals are a lot less demanding of state personnel.

"We realized we didn't want to force all state and local employees to become archivists," Excell said. "We have to work with the agencies to make this easier for them. We are now proposing the use of things like workflow processes and a seamless procedure to mark records for archival."

Another challenge is avoiding a repeat of the Wang debacle. Many states, including Washington, invested in Wang document imaging systems in the early 1990s. Today, Wang is no longer in business, and agencies that purchased their proprietary solutions are left without a means of retrieving their data.

When technology changes so quickly, choosing a platform that will allow access to information 10, 20 or 100 years from now can be a problem.

In Washington, this problem is being approached very carefully. Reed's office is looking at several options that would provide them an easy, platform-neutral storage format. The state plans to continue researching its best options in hardware and software and make final procurements early next year.

In the meantime, it will be examining ways to auto-archive certain information, apply data-mining tools to figure out which records to keep and eliminate duplicate records.

Overall, Excell said the current environment has made this the perfect time for the state to pursue a State Digital Archives project.

"We couldn't have done something like this five or 10 years ago," he said. "Storage area networks have improved dramatically over the last few years, and the cost of electronic storage has fallen at the same time. Workflow processes have improved, making it easier to transfer records around and to track them. All those things combined have made this the ideal time to do a project like this."

Reed said he is just happy the state will no longer be losing pieces of its history.

"We are following through on an obligation to serve future generations," he said. "We must allow Washingtonians 100 years from now to learn from our mistakes and take advantage of our successes."

Justine Brown  |  Contributing Writer