Slipping Through Electronic Cracks

Nation's first State Government Digital Archives stops electronic history from vanishing.

by / September 24, 2002
Washington created the nation's first State Government Digital Archives to stop its electronic history from vanishing.

When Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed saw the state's electronic records disappearing before his eyes, he felt compelled to change the situation.

"E-mail is being used more and more these days as part of the process of conducting government," he said. "But we didn't have a means to record or archive electronic records, so those pieces of history were slipping away."

Reed's office estimates most government agencies in Washington have lost about 50 percent of their electronic records, some of which include e-mail from governors, key legislators and elected officials. The state is also missing records of policy drafts that included the thinking behind current legislation.

"We'd go back and look for some information, and it was just gone," said Reed. "We'd have no explanation for how things were done, no way to get the answers we needed."

The growth of electronic records and the lack of policies for handling them have created a huge challenge for government record-keepers at the state, local and federal levels [see "Record-Breaking Dilemma," by Tod Newcombe, Government Technology magazine, June 2002]. Many agencies are losing periods of history as a result.

"We felt it was extremely important to find a solution that would stop the losses of electronic information," said Reed.

Breaking Digital Ground
In June, Reed's office broke ground on their solution - the first-ever State Government Digital Archives in the United States.

The $14.3 million, 48,000 square-foot building is designed specifically to maintain and preserve e-mail and electronic documents. Set to open in the winter of 2004, the building is located on the campus of Eastern Washington University in Cheney. It will contain a scalable Storage Area Network capable of storing a pedabyte - or one quadrillion bytes - of data. Over the next 15 years, that will be expanded to 800 terabytes - the equivalent of 200 billion pages of text.

According to Reed's office, storing that amount of information on paper would require boxes running the length of a football stadium stacked 270 feet high.

The state will collect and store e-mail records, copies of old Web sites, voter registration lists and courthouse records including deeds and financial paperwork, among other things.

"We'll start by collecting the basic and most critical electronic records, whatever we determine those to be," said Steve Excell, assistant secretary of state and Digital Archives project leader. "Once we get the hang of that, we plan on collecting much more."

In the past, the state had no way to track and store electronic voter registration lists. The new digital archives will change that.

"It will be like having a mini-census done every year instead of every 10 years," Excell said. "That information is extremely valuable to us."

Excell added that the state, which has experienced courthouse fires and floods in the past, will no longer have to worry about losing vast amounts of data if another such incident should occur.

A Digital Addition
Reed's mission to make the State Government Digital Archives a reality was simplified because the state already planned to construct a new archive building; adding the digital archives involved amending current legislation to include another floor.

"We thought, 'Why not just add a digital archive building to it?" he said. "We presented that to the Legislature and got a very positive reaction."

The new structure being built on the Eastern Washington University campus is part of a partnership agreement between the university and the state - the university donated the land and the state is paying for the structure. Once built, students will have access to the archives for research purposes.

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