I noticed recently that my doctor’s practice has gone entirely electronic. There were gaps in the records of course, but I was pretty impressed at how complete the system was. And it got me to thinking about the history of electronic records in archives.
I had the privilege of working for the National Archives custodial electronic records program – one of the oldest archival electronic records programs in the country; its first accession was in 1970 –before joining the NHPRC. When I started at the National Archives, electronic records meant databases – generally in the form of flat files or CSV files. We didn’t preserve the user guides; we printed them out. Google was barely two years and social media was barely a flicker in Mark Zuckerberg’s eyes. Until the Access to Archival Databases (AAD) utility was built in the early 2000s, the only way to provide access to any electronic records was copying the files onto removable media and making a paper copy of the user guide.
NHPRC was an early proponent when it came to electronic records. The Commission funded its first electronic records project in 1979 – “to develop procedures to schedule, accession, and retrieve information from machine-readable records of Wisconsin state agencies.” We just funded a project at George Washington University that will result in preservation protocols for Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. In the 35 years between the two projects, we have funded about 100 projects that extend the profession’s ability to preserve electronic records. These projects provided training; tested new preservation protocols; set up electronic records programs in a variety of organizations: state archives, museums, colleges and universities; and explored how to preserve and provide access to specific types of records formats like email and GIS.
Where am I going with all this history? Good question. The rapid progress of the archives community in the last 15 years certainly is part of what I wanted to focus on, but there is something else too. I’m not entirely sure that I can articulate it: we will not be able to stop the evolution of records, but we will be able to deal with it.
What is our greatest triumph thus far in working with electronic records? What do you think our greatest challenge is in preserving and providing access to electronic records will be five years from now? How about ten?