Sunshine Week: Archivist warns state records at risk in digital age

  • State Archivist Brian Burford stands in a room in the New Hampshire State Archives last week where 80,000 boxes of paper records are stored.  LEAH WILLINGHAM / Monitor staff

  • State Archivist Brian Burford checks the code on a box of records at New Hampshire State Archives last week. There are 80,000 boxes of paper records at the archives now that are all organized by an individual numerical code.  LEAH WILLINGHAM / Monitor staff

  • State Archivist Brian Burford looks through pile of outdated technology, including IBM punch cards, CDs and floppy discs, used to store records at the New Hampshire State Archives last week. LEAH WILLINGHAM / Monitor staff

  • An IBM punch card donated by the Department of Transportation in the 1970s is shown. The punch card is one of a few outdated technologies that have yet to be updated at the archives.

  • A pile of outdated technology, including IBM punch cards, CDs and floppy discs, used to store records are displayed at the New Hampshire State Archives last week.  LEAH WILLINGHAM / Monitor staff

  • State Archivist Brian Burford looks through records at the Division of Archives and Records Management last week. LEAH WILLINGHAM photos / Monitor staff

  • State Archivist Brian Burford looks through records on the shelves of the New Hampshire State Archives last week. LEAH WILLINGHAM / Monitor staff

  • State Archivist Brian Burford looks through records on the shelves of the New Hampshire State Archives last week. LEAH WILLINGHAM / Monitor staff

  • State Archivist Brian Burford looks at the state’s etching of the Declaration of Independece – one of only 27 copies in existence – at the Division of Archives and Records Management last week. LEAH WILLINGHAM / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 3/13/2019 5:38:11 PM

Brian Burford could find a letter written in 1780 by New Hampshire’s first governor, Meshech Weare, in the state archives in five minutes if you asked him.

But finding correspondence from former governors Maggie Hassan or John Lynch from this century – that’s a bigger challenge.

Most communication between public officials is now done electronically, the state archivist said, but there’s no law in New Hampshire that mandates governors or other officials turn over emails to the state archives when they leave office. Most officials do not leave any.

There is also no digital archiving program in place that would be able to process those records. Digital applications are costly and take additional staff to maintain. It’s not something New Hampshire has been willing to jump on yet.

The result, however unintentional, is an emerging gap in the historical record, Burford said.

“I’m sure there’s a great deal that is being lost,” Burford said, walking through the state archives last week. “We may not even think about it until 25 or 50 years from now. We’ll say, ‘What about the record of this event?’ or ‘What was this public official thinking when they passed this legislation?’ And someone will realize nobody saved them.

“Ultimately, these documents have a huge impact on how we remember history. They represent significant communication over time. I worry about our digital age, and how much we will be leaving behind to communicate,” he said.

North Carolina has a digital records programs that takes in all emails from public officials as soon as they leave office. It also uses specialized programming to archive social media accounts.

Burford would like to do the same thing in New Hampshire, but it would require the archive to hire an additional three to 15 people with unique knowledge in digital preservation.

Right now, the archives operate with a staff of seven and requests that state agencies send in paper copies of records. As more agencies transition to storing information digitally, they are seeing more digital records coming in – records they can’t keep up with.

Every few years, the technology used to store information updates, Burford said. As a result, they have piles of technology like CDs, floppy discs and zip files that need to be converted.

Walking through the state archives building last week, Burford pointed to a box of IBM punched cards from the Department of Transportation donated in the early 1970s.

“I believe they have to do with construction projects of roads,” he said. “But just what they say, I don’t know.”

“If someone wanted to come and see them, I don’t know what they would do,” he added, his brow furrowing.

This is a problem that Burford said worries him as an archivist. With the latest technology for storing and managing data changing every few years, it’s easy for records to slip through the cracks.

“How do you know if something is in danger of becoming obsolete? Where we’re dealing with public trust of records, to me that’s an extremely important matter,” he said. “There’s just so much room for so easy an error.”

“We’re at the mercy of the machines, and the machines are always changing,” he said.

The archives

The state archives houses everything from Civil War-era letters, journals of House and Senate members dating back hundreds of years and an original etching of the Declaration of Independence.

It also holds modern court records, school transcripts and copies of legislation after it is signed or vetoed by the governor.

The archives has 3,000 different retention schedules – each one for a specific state agency. Agencies fill their own boxes with records – and every box has a unique numbered code that gets scanned into the state’s digital locator. There are 80,000 boxes in the state archives right now, Burford said.

After a few years, records that no longer need to be saved will be purged. But that still leaves many records behind that are saved long-term.

Around 10 years ago, the state archives ran out of space for storing paper records. They recently constructed a new space that can fit 90,000 additional boxes, but they are waiting on an occupancy permit from the state fire marshal before moving records in, Burford said.

In the meantime, boxes of paper records have been piling up at state agencies, he said.

“If you walk into the attorney general’s office, there are hallways that are just lined with boxes waiting to come here,” he said.

Burford said proponents of digitizing say that moving away from paper copies could save space. But he said he thinks paper copies of some records will always be used in some form because of their consistency.

“If you write something down on a piece of paper, and put it in a box on the shelf, 50 years later the chances are good the box is still there, the paper is still there, you can still read it. Paper is fairly long lasting,” he said. “With digital records, we’re relying on a machine interpreting the record and making it understandable to us and the versions of software are always changing.”

Burford also said it takes more effort to figure out if digital records have been altered. With paper copies of records, it’s pretty easy to tell if something has been meddled with.

If the state archives had a digital program, it would be able to build in a program to run backups on the archives with programs that check content for corruption or changes.

With the resources they have now, the archives are working on obtaining a machine that transfers digital images into microfilm – something they can use to make sure they have a solid backup of the digital records they take in.

“That way, if we ever have a question about, this file being translated into another file, translated into another file, and corrupted along the way, we’ve got a microfilm version of that that we can compare and say, yes, that’s an authentic record,” Burford said. “Nothing has changed.”

Starting a digital program

Starting a digital program can be daunting for archive programs.

Massachusetts State Archives Executive Director Michael Comeau said his department was able to get buy-in from the state after former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney ran for president. The state wanted to find a way to store the digital records from his administration.

There was an immediate cost, Comeau said. The state paid about $200,000 in consulting fees and then hired a digital archives specialist.

They ended up hiring someone who previously worked in digital archives at Tufts University. That led to a few more hires to be able to maintain the program. It’s important to have staff that are specifically trained in the digital world, Comeau said.

“Our digital archives director once told me paper records are like a teenager – you take them in, you’ve trained them and you hope they understand things. You have to check on them occasionally and make sure they re-doing the right thing, but they don’t require 24/7 supervision,” Comeau said. “The electronic records are like a toddler – you can’t take your eyes off them ever.”

In North Carolina, that archives department was able to kick-start their digital program through
grant funding for preserving geospatial and email records, said North Carolina Director of Archives and Records Sarah Koonts.

Koonts said North Carolina archives was able to work with the government to set up a retention schedule where email records would be tied to specific positions in the state government.

Once an official left a position, their email records are immediately transferred over to the archives, Koonts said.

She said making this program work took a lot of visits to state agencies and the information technology department to educate them on the importance of the process. The only resistance she saw was that people were worried about their emails being taken while they were still working.

“They weren’t resistant to the idea that we have the right to save emails, or that we can do it. It was, ‘I don’t want to turn this over to you right now,” Koonts said. “We try to say to them, ‘Look, we have no interest in harvesting your email in real time for anyone and everyone to see. This is just to provide a historical record.”

Koonts said they are working to establish a minimum amount of time after someone leaves their job before records would be released. For governors, it would likely be shorter than other public officials.

She said maintaining a digital records program has already cost them tens of thousands of dollars in subscription fees for the programs that archive social media accounts, the cost of the server for saving all of the digital archives, which, once purchased, costs about $10,000 each year for maintenance.

Changing approach

Even if officials’ social media and email accounts are able to be saved by the state archives, Burford said he worries about how those will be interpreted in the future.

People aren’t writing long-winded letters detailing their thoughts and daily experiences anymore. Emails, while an important window into officials’ daily lives, can be short and easy to misinterpret. On social media, individuals are able to post many thoughts at once and there’s no system for fact-checking information.

“I don’t know what our society 100 years from now will accept as being true,” he said. “If you read it on Twitter, is it true? It may be that Wikipedia becomes the final authority. In that sense, I am concerned about our fundamental values and how the digital realm might be changing them.”

These mediums are still vital to preserve, Burford said, and they have implications we can’t know yet.

For now, the archives are trying to take on digitization in small steps, mostly focusing on preserving older records. Right now, they have purchased a large scanner that can digitize old maps and sensitive documents.

Burford is hoping to create a digital display in the State House where the people can look at important state documents like the state’s etching of the Declaration of Independence – one of only 27 copies in existence.

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