Friday, October 10, 2014

Let’s Get Digital!: Electronic Records Day 2014

Today we celebrate the third annual Electronic Records Day brought to you by the Council of State Archivists with the aim of raising awareness about the importance of electronic records and issues related to preservation and access.  Electronic records are "born digital,” files produced in a computer environment. Yesterday's boxes of papers are today's e-mail, websites, databases, and word processing documents. And to ensure a record of the 21st century, those computer files need to last well into the future, along with the paper.

Archivists have already started the process of creating best practices for archival preservation and access of digital archives. The collections we receive at the Russell Library include a lot of paper, however, in the last five years alone, 25% of donations have included some computer files. Even more compelling is that all new collections this year have had a significant digital component. The myth of the "paperless office" has been largely debunked or at least questioned  (see Digital Trends, BBC, New York Times, Book) and that can lull us into a false sense of security. Because while there is still a lot of paper around, which can be collected, preserved, and made accessible through well-understood archival practices, some very important things are only being produced in digital form. There may be no such thing as a paperless office, but most offices are definitely hybrids of computer files and paper.

Take the records of the Democratic Party of Georgia (DPG), for example. As part of an NHPRC-funded project to process the records of Georgia’s two political parties, the Russell Library has been working to address the preservation and access needs of this hybrid collection. The records date from 1962 to 2007, but its paper records essentially stop around 1990. Scattered materials related to campaigns can be found in the paper records; financial disclosures, form filing records in county and district materials. But individual campaigns are not documented in the paper records. The DPG’s electronic records, however, contain some of the most comprehensive campaign and election materials in the collection. Over fifteen individual campaigns from 2000 are documented in the electronic records. These materials include campaign mailers, campaign budgets, correspondence between the political director and candidates, strategy memos, and more.

Some of these materials were never created to be printed or used in paper form. For example, photographs of DPG events and survey data collected about voters were produced and used in digital form only. Budget files and statistical information about caucus voting, redistricting population percentages, and other voting files contain complex formulas with color coded notations. Spreadsheets contain multiple sheets with multiple sets of data calculations. These are invaluable records of political strategy and work that would lose important functionality and meaning if printed out or even if they were converted into a static form like PDF. By preserving these records in their electronic version, we capture the functionality of the records.

Preserving records in their electronic form has a lot of advantages. Digital archives can be more accessible, sent easily to researchers anywhere in the world. No longer do you need the means to travel to access this part of the historical record; an internet connection will do. Large quantities of data can be searched, analyzed, and combined with other data to reach a better understanding of their meaning. The information that was frozen in reams of dot matrix-printed sheets can be analyzed for trends once it is stored in a database.

Important records are being produced in electronic form so how do we best preserve them and make them accessible? Early conversations with records creators is critical. Archivists can help with identifying what the creators should focus on saving over time and contextual information to capture to make them more useful to researchers. Once the electronic records are in the care of archivists. they need regular attention to keep them accessible. Servers and other storage media fail and have to be replaced. The software needed to open a file format is no longer produced and another solution needs to be found to open it. Care needs to be taken that the file is not altered in any way to preserve authenticity. This constant management takes technological infrastructure, money, and sound policies and practices. But given the significant content and research potential, the effort is well worth it.

Curious about what it takes to preserve digital records, and what you might need to do with your own files?  Check out the Council of State Archivists Electronic Records Day page or the Library of Congress Personal Digital Archiving page. Curious about the Democratic Party of Georgia’s born digital files? Expect their open access in January of 2015!

Post by Adriane Hanson, Processing and Electronic Records Archivists, and Angelica Marini, Project Archivist

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