Sunday, August 18, 2013

CoSA-SAA 2013: Thinking Beyond the Box

The 2013 joint annual meeting of the Council of State Archivists (CoSA) and the Society of American Archivists (SAA) ended at around 1:00 PM today. I'm feeling a bit crispy around the edges and a bit sad about not getting to see everyone or everything I wanted to see, but I'm nonetheless happy. The sessions I attended were all excellent, and most of the people with whom I spoke were also pleased with this year's meeting.

I particularly enjoyed Session 610, Thinking Beyond the Box: How Military Archivists Are Meeting 21st Century Challenges, which started at 8:00 AM this morning (N.B.: I would be remiss if I failed to mention that I am not a morning person. As enthused as I was about this session, I suspect I didn't catch some of the details.)

I asked to serve as the Program Committee's liaison to this session because I thought it would be really interesting, and I was not disappointed. In a society that has for four decades relied upon an all-volunteer military, it's all too easy for those who don't have deep connections to individual military personnel or to the armed forces as institutions to overlook the size, scope, and complexity of the military and the volume, richness, and variety of the records generated by the armed forces and the personal papers created by individual military personnel. This is a problem: if we're to gather and maintain a documentary record that does justice to American society, we need to give the military its due. As today's session emphasized, military records also help to document other aspects of our history and culture. Moreover, the approaches that military archivists have developed to ensure that the documentary record is sufficiently comprehensive and that vast quantities of electronic records are processed quickly and appropriately ought to be of broad professional interest.

Anthony Crawford (Kansas State University) emphasized the value of military records and personal papers of individual servicemen and -women to scholars researching a wide array of subjects:
  • Papers of medical personnel are of interest to historians of medicine and, in the case of women who served, historians of women and gender.
  • Military records and persona papers also document the history of the communities in which they served. A historic preservationist seeking to preserve a British refugee facility that had originally been a military hospital made extensive use of the personal papers of a Using the papers of a member of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps who had been stationed there during the Second World War.
  • Artwork that appears in military publications and on military posters is of interest to historians of art. Hollywood has often sought assistance from the military, films that depict the armed forces in a positive light are sometimes shot on military bases and use soldiers as extras, and historians of film will find these relationships documented in military records.
  • Historians of food and foodways will find that military has reached out to experts of various kinds to obtain information about the nutritional needs of troops and to supply information about the nation's food supply. Menus documenting the meals served to troops are also of interest to these researchers.
James Ginther (Library of the Marine Corps) detailed his repository's efforts to ensure that the Marine Corps's involvement in the recent conflict in Iraq is appropriately documented. The Marine Corps views command chronologies prepared by commanders as the official record of unit-level involvement in conflicts, but many of these chronologies lack essential detail. Marine Corps archivists devised a variety of strategies to overcome these deficiencies – and did so in ways that will be of interest to other institutional archivists seeking to encourage improved recordkeeping:
  • They assembled lists of the personnel responsible for preparing command chronologies. Recognizing that units engaged in combat had other priorities, they didn't press those responsible. However, they did start sending letters of acknowledgement to commanders, who for a long time thought that the reports were disappearing into a black hole in Washington; the letters also indicated that archivists could help them obtain historical information about their units. Once commanders realized that their reports were being read, their reports became more detailed.
  • They trained captains who attended the annual Expeditionary Warfare School and stressed that command chronologies constitute the official record of a unit's activities: the Marine Corps assumes that anything not mentioned in the reports didn't happen. They also emphasized that the Marine Corps uses command chronologies to set budgets and grant awards and that the Veterans Administration (VA) also consults them.
  • They began collecting personal papers and other materials that supplemented the command chronologies. A friend of Ginther's who was deployed to Iraq took a vast number of photographs and conducted oral histories that formed the basis of an award-winning book and donated all of the materials to the Library of the Marine Corps.
  • They also reach out to visiting groups of veterans and other people. When visitors learn about the archives' holdings, they often donate personal papers or agree to an oral history interview with a Marine Corps archivist.
Joel Westphal, who was until recently employed by the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), detailed how CENTCOM is preserving the joint headquarters records created as a result of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Iraqi conflict is significant in that it marked the first time in military history that the majority of records (more than 95 percent) were created in digital format, and the joint headquarters records were at the center of the largest single transfer of electronic data from a war zone during an ongoing military operation. At the present time, the records, which comprise approximately 52 TB of data, constitute the largest single collection of electronic war records ever assembled; however, the records documenting joint headquarters operations in Afghanistan will ultimately comprise roughly 150 TB of data.

Efforts to preserve these records grew out of a previous failure: only a small percentage of Gulf War records were ever transferred to the U.S. Archives and Records Administration (NARA), and both CENTCOM and NARA were intent ensuring that Operation Iraqi Freedom was documented appropriately. CENTCOM began working on records preservation projects as early as 2003, and NARA began asking about Operation Iraqi Freedom records in 2009. As a result of NARA's inquiries, a war records group was established and United States Forces-Iraq was pushed to establish a records management program and to transfer its records to CENTCOM.

 In April 2010, a five-day assessment of United States Forces-Iraq recordkeeping practices was completed. Although some of the published findings of this assessment turned out to be inaccurate, its estimate of the volume of records was both accurate and extremely important. The records were then inventoried, and CENTCOM established a technical transfer team and a technology team to prepare for the transfer of 52 TB of data.

On August 31, 2010, President Obama declared that Operation Iraqi Freedom had ended, and CENTCOM focused on copying the records onto a storage array and transferring the storage array to CENTCOM headquarters in Tampa, Florida; a full backup copy of the unprocessed data was conveyed to NARA.

A team of three CENTCOM staffers is currently processing the records and sending those identified as permanent to NARA, and the team's processing decisions will be of interest to anyone attempting to implement More Product, Less Processing to born-digital records:
  • The team was adamant that the original order of the records be preserved at all costs, which saved vast amounts of time; the team can now processing 175,000 records per staff member per month.
  • Millions of the records are e-mail messages, and many of them are of transitory value or are non-record material. In order to speed processing and avoid retaining an unmanageable mass of records, the processing team decided that e-mails of generals, admirals, and colonels who held important positions are permanent and that all e-mails of lower-level personnel are retained for 6 years and then destroyed.
  • The team is working with a document analytics vendor whose tools could weed out redundant or near-redundant records, empty folders and zero-byte files, executable files lurking in data-only directories, and other materials that clearly don't warrant preservation.
One final word about this session:  it was assembled by the Military Archives Roundtable, which was established last year.  I took a few minutes today to read the petition to SAA Council seeking permission to form the roundtable, and it's a pretty impressive document.  I expect all manner of interesting things from this group.

Image: the Beauregard-Keyes House, 1113 Chartres Street, New Orleans, 17 August 2013.  This home, which was built in 1826, is an elevated center hall colonial -- a bit of an odd sight in the French Quarter.  Confederate general Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard lived in the house in 1860 and from 1866-68.

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