Born Digital

A handful of states are beginning to focus on the need to preserve digital documents.
June 2006
Ellen Perlman
By Ellen Perlman  |  Former columnist
Ellen Perlman was a GOVERNING staff writer and technology columnist.

A handful of states are beginning to focus on the need to preserve digital documents.

For those of us who grew up with vinyl records, rotary phones and Elsa the lion cub, the definition of a document was something written on paper. These days, public documents flit about in the electronic world and may never make it to paper. They are born digital, and states often encourage such electronic documents as a way to save on printing costs.

But archivists, whose job it is to be concerned about preservation of public records, worry about their ephemeral quality. State and local history is endangered unless governments can come up with policies and practices to save the documents that didn't start out on paper.

Washington State has been immersed in such an effort for a couple of years. The current secretary of state, Sam Reed, successfully lobbied the legislature for "preservation" funds several years ago. A $14.3 million archive--digital as well as paper--opened in a new building in 2003.

Washington has made it a priority to digitally archive records that affect people's rights: marriage records, land records, power of attorney and court

documents. It's heavily involved in "spidering" Web sites of potential historical importance--that is "walking" the Web and copying appropriate sites to a hard drive. "It's like locking a Web page in time," says digital archivist Adam Jansen.

Washington was prodded into action by a study that showed that 50 percent of archival electronic records were lost because of technological obsolescence, deterioration of the media they were stored on or failure to keep track of files. "We had to do something," Jansen says. The archive now serves 600 customers a day and was searched by 13,000 unique researchers in one month this past spring.

In the next few quarters, the state is going to be putting up maps and photos and turning audio tape into digital format. As an example of the benefits of Washington's now-searchable database of archival records, a genealogy researcher who had spent 16 years looking for the record of an ancestor found him in no time using the database. It turned out he had been looking in the wrong county. When he typed the name he was looking for into the digital archive, it popped up.

"Digital" and "archivist" are not words that typically go together. Experts in recordkeeping traditionally have done their job with paper documents. "Archivists used to be able to work in a vacuum," says David Carmicheal, director of the Georgia Archives and president of the Council of State Archivists. "They'd take documents back to their building and work on them." The key to success in digital archiving is for these records preservationists to work closely with technology experts.

It would help if agencies thought about how their documents should be archived. Georgia is trying to get agency personnel to focus on preservation at the beginning of the process rather than the end. Many digital records are produced on the fly. Theoretically, an official could create a birth certificate by pulling up an electronic template, inserting information from a database, printing it out and handing it to the parents. Then, all the information could settle back into its disparate locations. Georgia wants to be sure agencies are creating actual records and then preserving them in some way. "We're still feeling our way along on how to do that," says Carmicheal. "The importance of preserving has not changed but the challenge has."

One of the traditional strategies for saving electronic records is to migrate them constantly to new media. That means that every time software or hardware is upgraded, a record has to be advanced too, such as from a floppy disk to a CD. That's pretty costly over the long term. Georgia is focusing on preserving for the long run only those documents that have long-term value. Unfortunately, it's easy to just keep everything because storage is so plentiful.

Arizona is working on developing software to capture vital digital government records. In the meantime, it has a programmer who "harvests" state Web sites and compresses the information in a complex fashion to create an information safety net. There is limited access to the information, but at least it's not lost--or so goes the state's logic. The software in development will be more selective, capturing what the state decides is important to keep and leaving the rest behind.

But Arizona has to contend with some digital lawlessness out there. Web sites are created by many different people for many different reasons using a variety of methods. The software has to contend with those quirks. "WWW stands for the wild, wild web," says Richard Pearce-Moses, director of digital government information in Arizona and president of the Society of American Archivists. "This really is a new frontier."

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman | Former columnist |