Monday, February 28, 2011

Frank Woodruff Buckles, 1901-2011

I woke up today with the intention of posting about the electronic records workshop that I taught last week and about New York in Bloom 2011, but I learned this morning that Frank Woodruff Buckles, the last American veteran of the First World War, died yesterday at the age of 110. The last surviving French and German veterans died in 2008, the last surviving British soldier died in 2009, and the last surviving Canadian veteran died last year; as a result, Claude Choules, who served in Britain's Royal Navy, and Florence Green, who served in the Women's Royal Air Force, are likely the last living people who served in any capacity during the First World War.

Buckles led a fascinating life. A native of Missouri, he lied about his age in order to enlist in the Army and was sent to England and France, then came home and found work in an Oklahoma City post office, the Toronto offices of a steamship company and a telegraph firm, and a New York City bank. Upon realizing that he most enjoyed working in the shipping industry, he took jobs on passenger and cargo ships sailing to South America. In 1940, he accepted a shipping industry job that took him to Manila. He was taken prisoner when the Japanese invaded the Philippines, and spent three and a half years in prison camps. After the Second World War ended, he lived in San Francisco for a time, got married, and decided to purchase a farm near Charles Town, West Virginia, where his forebears had initially settled. He spent the rest of his life working his farm -- he gave up driving a tractor in 2006 -- and as it became known that he was one of a handful of surviving First World War veterans, he began speaking out about the need to honor the men and women who had served in the 20th century's first total war.

The War to End All War has never captured the American public imagination in the way that the war that followed it has. We entered the First World War late and thus were spared the horrific casualties that the other combatant nations suffered. Moreover, most Americans have few moral qualms about our nation's role in the Second World War: we were fighting aggressive regimes that repressed their own people, oppressed the peoples living in the nations they conquered, and, in the case of the Nazi regime, committed genocide. It's a lot harder to construct such a compelling narrative around our entry into the First World War.

However, the war's influence can still be felt all around us. The manner in which the peace was brokered ensured that Europe remained perilously unstable. The continent again plunged into war twenty-one years after the War to End All War ended, and Soviet communism, another product of the First World War, survived in Europe until 1989. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire created the modern Middle East, which is still struggling toward stability and responsible governance. The war gave rise to a genocide -- a word that became depressingly familiar as the 20th century wore on. As Paul Fussell brilliantly explains in The Great War and Modern Memory, the readiness with which we see raunchy double entendres in innocent statements, our appreciation of irony, and the cynical humor with which we often regard various social and political institutions are the result of cultural changes wrought by the First World War.

Moreover, the First World War does have an object lesson for us. In discussing the impact of the First Battle of the Somme, which saw 60,000 British troops killed or injured in a single day, Paul Fussell notes that:
Whatever the main cause of failure, the attack on the Somme was the end of illusions about breaking the line and sending the cavalry through to end the war. Contemplating the new awareness brought to both sides by the first day of July, 1916, [English poet Edmund] Blunden wrote eighteen years later: "By the end of the day both sides had seen, in a sad scrawl of broken earth and murdered men, the answer to the question. No road. No thoroughfare. Neither race had won, nor could win, the war. The War had won, and would go on winning."
Sometimes -- most of the time, actually -- war wins, and everyone and everything sucked into its maw loses. We forget that at our peril.

Approximately 16 million people died as a result of the First World War, and roughly 21 million people were wounded. It's hard to make sense of those numbers, but it's a lot easier to grasp the enormity of the loss when focusing on the individuals -- breathing, warm-fleshed beings with needs, aspirations, dislikes, passions, and plans -- who were caught up in the war and, all too often, never made it out. Frank Buckles, who quietly led an extraordinary life, was a living reminder of the war's enduring impact, as were all of the other men and women who were drawn into the conflict, survived, and went on to lead quietly extraordinary lives.

Thankfully, Frank Buckles's life will likely not be forgotten: a documentary film about his life is in the works. The lives of other American veterans of the war are documented in archives throughout the United States (my own repository among them) and in productions such as the superb radio documentary created by the World War I Living History Project. As an archivist, I would be the first to argue that the documentary record constitutes an essential, inextricable, vivid tie to the past. It is nonetheless sad and sobering to see the documentary record become the only thing that connects us to a given point in the past.

Requiescat in pace, Frank Buckles.

Monday, February 14, 2011

U.S. Federal Cloud Computing Strategy released

Last week, the Chief Information Officer of the United States released the Federal Cloud Computing Strategy, which outlines how the federal government anticipates saving money, increasing the efficiency of its IT operations, and delivering better service to the public via cloud computing.

This strategy, which will help federal agencies migrate at least some of their IT infrastructure to commercial or government cloud environments, is intended to:
  • Articulate the benefits, considerations, and trade-offs of cloud computing
  • Provide a decision framework and case examples to support agencies in migrating towards cloud computing
  • Highlight cloud computing implementation resources
  • Identify Federal Government activities and roles and responsibilities for catalyzing cloud adoption (p. 2)
I haven't had the chance to give this document a close reading and likely won't have the chance to do so for a couple of weeks, but I have skimmed it and was pleased to note the following:
Storing information in the cloud will require a technical mechanism to achieve compliance with records management laws, policies and regulations promulgated by both the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and the General Services Administration (GSA). The cloud solution has to support relevant record safeguards and retrieval functions, even in the context of a provider termination (p. 14) [emphasis added]
As a state government employee, I'm also intrigued by this statement:
Federal Government contracts will also provide riders for state and local governments. These riders will allow all of these governments to realize the same procurement advantages of the Federal Government. Increasing membership in cloud services will further drive innovation and cost efficiency by increasing market size and creating larger efficiencies-of-scale (p. 29) [emphasis added].
And this one:
To effectively manage these governance issues in the long-term, the Federal Government needs to lay a stable governance foundation that will outlast single individuals or administrations. To the best extent possible, individuals or committees should have explicitly defined roles, non-overlapping responsibilities, and a clear decision-making hierarchy. These steps will empower the government for action, minimize unnecessary bureaucracy, and ensure accountability for results.

The following bodies will therefore have these roles and responsibilities:
  • National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) will lead and collaborate with Federal, State, and local government agency CIOs, private sector experts, and international bodies to identify and prioritize cloud computing standards and guidance . . . . (p. 31) [emphasis added]
I'm looking forward to seeing how all of this plays out.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

A brief history of [portable] data storage

For your Sunday morning viewing pleasure: a brief, fun overview of data storage media from the punchcard to the USB keychain drive. As creator Alan Warburton freely admits, this video is not comprehensive. You won't see any 8-inch floppies, Zip disks, DVDs, or many other types of portable media, and it makes no mention of the internal hard drives that have enabled us to manage vast quantities of data. However, it nicely covers than 60 years of technological evolution in slightly less than two minutes.

HT to Rosemary in ND for drawing this video to my attention.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Missouri State Capitol fire centennial

On the evening of 5 February 1911, a bolt of lightning struck the dome of the Missouri State Capitol and started a fire that ultimately destroyed the building. As the flames ate away at the structure, government officials, residents of Jefferson City and nearby communities, and inmates from a nearby prison formed a human chain and salvaged what they could. Thanks to their efforts, the state seal, important land records, and the official record that abolished slavery in the state were rescued. However, other important records were lost and many of those that were saved were badly amaged; you can see an example here.

I haven't been able to find any photographs of the fire and its aftermath on the Missouri State Archives Web site, but the Kansas City Star has posted copies of nine State Archives photographs on its site. Given the extent of the damage -- the dome ultimately collapsed into the lower floors of the building -- it's amazing that no one perished and that so many important records were saved.

My own repository suffered similar losses fifty-two days later, when flames swept through the third and fourth floors of the New York State Capitol's western wing, which then housed the New York State Library. The building survived, but one person was killed and most of the State Library's holdings, which then included government records as well as books, periodicals, and manuscript collections, were either destroyed completely or suffered extensive damage.

A quick Google search reveals that until the second half of the 20th century, state capitol fires were depressingly commonplace events. Given the heavy usage of oil lamps and gaslights in the 19th century, the lack of safety standards during the first decades of the electric era, and the absence of smoke detectors, automated sprinkler systems, and other modern safety technologies for much of the 20th century, it's not surprising that so much of our documentary record has literally gone up in smoke.