Thursday, August 13, 2009

SAA 2009: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Electronic Records Preservation (Session 203)

Texas State Capitol, as seen from the middle of Congress Street, 13 August 2009.

This session highlighted how two state archives and one state university system have tackled electronic records management and preservation issues and as moderator Nancy Kunde promised at the outset, it emphasized the importance of building partnerships and relationships, remaining actively engaged in electronic records issues, and taking advantages of opportunities that come one’s way.

Roger Christman asserted that the characteristics needed to sustain any relationship -- trust, patience, collaboration, persistence -- can be applied to electronic records and then explained how the Library of Virginia (LVA) cultivated a solid relationship with the Governor’s Office. It built upon its past efforts to schedule gubernatorial records and acquire archival records at the end of each governor’s term of office, Governor Mark Warner’s technology background and desire to avoid the sort of records-centered scandal that engulfed his immediate predecessor, the positive LVA internship experience of Governor Timothy Caine’s records officer, and the LVA’s ongoing effort to make records management and archival transfer as painless as possible. As a result of this ongoing relationship, Governor Caine personally signed a letter of support for the LVA’s recent NHPRC electronic records grant application, and the LVA has survived lean times with its budget largely intact.

Patricia Michaelis detailed how the Kansas Historical Society has dealt with electronic records, which in her view require a blend of faith and guts: we need to believe that we will one day “figure things out” and keep in mind that the risk associated with failure is great but the risk associated with doing nothing is even greater. The Kansas Historical Society has taken an inventive, project-driven, and at times zig-zagging approach to electronic records, which has allowed it to establish contact with state IT people, make the case for electronic records management and preservation, and build staff expertise in the absence of a full-fledged program. Its was able to use its grant project experiences to secure funding for a permanent electronic records archivist position, create a cross-agency electronic records committee, establish ongoing dialogue between key government stakeholders, and start a pilot digital repository project. It’s also turned challenges into opportunities; for example, in response to legislation that allowed state agencies to cease producing paper publications, it worked with the Kansas State Library to create a DSpace repository for electronic government publications. A lot of information about the Kansas Historical Society's electronic records work is available online; I think any state government electronic records archivist would benefit from looking at it.

Joanne Kaczmarek of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana focused on the concept of the slipstream, which is an area of reduced pressure or forward suction caused by the forward movement of an object through air or water. Migrating birds that fly in formation and Lance Armstrong and other members of his cycling team take advantage of slipstreams, and Kaczmarek asserted that, for electronic records archivists, collaboration is the slipstream. She traced the history of collaborative efforts focusing on electronic college and university records, and then outlined how she is pulling together stakeholders in the University of Illinois system. Owing to her efforts, there are now university-wide task forces looking at digital imaging, records management, and other electronic records issues. She asserted that each of us needs to find our own slipstream; that’s sometimes easier said than done, but it’s deeply sound advice nonetheless.

The discussion portion of the session brought to light several interesting issues:
  • Dealing with records creators who are reluctant to work with archivists. Figuring out how to provide a needed service to the creator and flattery (which works especially well with elected officials) are possible approaches. Using the stick of the law may also be appropriate, but caution is in order; taking a hard line with someone who wants to do the right thing can be profoundly counterproductive.
  • The importance of educating people about their recordkeeping responsibilities and doing so in a way they understand. For example, IT people tend to be project-oriented, and archivists generally aren’t. We need to speak other people’s languages, not expect them to understand ours.
  • State records laws need to be revised to include complex information systems – a monumental task but one that cannot be ceded to IT -- and we may need to revise our appraisal processes in order to deal with systems of this sort.
  • Training should be geared to creators’ needs. For example, Governor’s Office staff might need one-on-one training but that agency personnel, many of whom have lengthy careers in state government, might be satisfied with workshops and publications. Moreover, the process of creating guidelines and other training materials is a great way for staff to educate themselves.

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