Friday, August 10, 2012

SAA 2012: electronic records in political collections

I spent most of yesterday afternoon contending with a migraine, so my memories of yesterday's “Share a Byte! A Practical, Collaborative Approach to Electronic Records in Modern Political Collections” session are a bit vague in spots, but I was so impressed with both presentations that I feel compelled to write about them. I only hope I can do them justice.

The first presenter, Jennifer Huebscher of the Minnesota HistoricalSociety, discussed her repository's quick-and-dirty but highly effective approach to increasing access to electronic records. She focused on the electronic records of former Governor Timothy Pawlenty, who was exploring a presidential run at the time the records were transferred, and on the records of a gubernatorial redistricting commission.

From the start, the Minnesota Historical Society's collaborative relationship with the Office of the Governor smoothed the way. The records were covered by a retention schedule that was devised during the tenure of Pawlenty's predecessor, and as a result Pawlenty's staff knew that certain types of records should be kept. Toward the end of Pawlenty's second term, his staff contacted the Minnesota Historical Society and then arranged an in-person meeting to discuss the impending transfer.

At the end of the year, the Office of the Governor placed the records on portable media and gave them to the Minnesota Historical Society. Owing to its discussions with the governors' staff, the archivists had a clear sense of what to expect, were able to compare the files it had in hand with the list of files it anticipated receiving, and were able to obtain a missing set of files from Pawlenty's staff

The files consisted of image files, sound files, and one moving image file. The image files, which consisted of digital photographs of Governor Pawlenty and the First Lady, were transferred on two DVD-R discs and consisted of 1,740 files, most of which were in JPEG format but also included some TIFF, PDF, and BMP files. Images of the Governor were placed on one disc, and images of the First Lady were placed on the other, and each disc contained nine folders – one for each year the Governor was in office. The file names ranged from descriptive to vague, and the naming conventions used for images of the Governor differed from those used for images of the First Lady.

Some of the sound files were transferred on CD and DVD, and Minnesota Historical Society harvested others from the Web using HTTrack. Most of the 410 files were in MP3 format, but others were WAV or CDA files, and one was an MP4 file.

Minnesota Historical Society's electronic records archivist copied the files onto a secure Storage Area Network maintained by the state's Enterprise Technology department, and staff continue to run checksums periodically; however, a full-fledged framework for preserving these files has yet to be developed.

Internal collaboration made the records broadly accessible. The electronic records archivist produced a set of copies that cataloging staff processed and described, and the two worked together to figure out how best to provide access to them. Owing to significant public and media interest in the files, Huebscher and her colleagues sought to apply the principles of More Product, Less Process processing. They didn't alter file names or the overall arrangement of the files unless duplication or other problems made doing so absolutely necessary, they didn't create a set of preservation masters in normalized formats, they didn't add any extra metadata, they didn't do any additional research that would have enhanced description of files that had non-descriptive or undated file names. They created the finding aids describing the records by using a simple template, extracting file names, and using matching the hierarchical arrangement of the finding aids to the hierarchical arrangement of the files themselves.

The finding aids also facilitate access to the files themselves. The sound recordings finding aid covers a mix of born-digital files and physical cassettes and CDs, the display is simple and uncluttered, and the access copy of each born-digital file is hyperlinked in a field so users can easily download the files; the finding aid also includes file sizes to that users could estimate download times. The photographs finding aid includes a thumbnail illustration for each photograph (housed within a tag), and the amount of description varies depending upon information provided with each photo.

The Minnesota Historical Society took a similar approach to making accessible geospatial data created by a gubernatorial redistricting commission, and plan to use the procedures they developed when processing the Pawlenty records and the redistricting commission files to make other records transferred on disc accessible via the Web.

I was in pretty bad shape by the time Jim Williams of Middle Tennessee State University's Albert Gore Research Center began discussing his institution's efforts to rescue two U.S. Representatives' constituent service files, so my notes and my memory of his presentation are both deficient; as a result, I'm limiting my comments to the portions of the presentation I remember semi-clearly.

The constituent services files Williams and his colleagues sought to preserve were created using Lockheed Martin's Intranet Quorum (IQ) application. The offices of many U.S. Representatives use IQ to track correspondence, store constituent contact information, and track the progress of constituent cases. IQ is proprietary, and each office that uses it pays roughly $60,000 per year to do so. Lockheed can convert the data in IQ systems to a more user-friendly format, but there is a cost associated with doing so.

Middle Tennessee State University was able to persuade the U.S. Representatives who donated their records to pay for the conversion of their IQ data, but other repositories may find themselves forced to pay for conversion or to convert the data themselves. As a result, the university hopes to take the lead in developing ways to reconstruct IQ databases and to collaborate with other archives seeking to to the same thing. Anyone interested in participating in a consortium devoted to preserving IQ data should contact Williams at

Image:  Light fixtures in Sapphire Room OP, Hilton San Diego Bayfront, 10 August 2012.

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