Perspectives from Partners: Council of State Archivists

By Yejin Jang posted Sep 15,2016 04:07 PM


October is Archive Month and in recognition of that and Electronic Records Day on October 10th, we spoke with Council of State Archivists (CoSA) President Patricia Smith-Mansfield (Utah), Vice President Timothy Baker (Maryland), and CoSA Executive Director Anne Ackerson about state archives’ role and responsibility within government and how their work intersects with the work of state CIOs. CoSA is the only national nonprofit association serving exclusively the country’s 56 state and territorial archives by advancing their needs to stakeholders and the public.

Q: Could you tell us about the work of state archivists? What’s in your wheelhouse of responsibility?

Patricia: Every state and territory has a state archives that holds the permanent and historic records of the state government. In Utah, we also hold local government records that are historical and have permanent value. The reason why we do this is because these are records that are important for transparency and accountability in government. They document the rights of citizens and they provide historical context to the state. Some states also provide records management assistance to the state and to local governments. We assist government on how to take care of their records [which includes] how long they need to keep them and how they need to take care of them. These functions are for records of any format; it includes tangible records and also electronic records. And in archives, it also includes records that are already of obsolete format that have long since come and gone in previous ages.

Tim: As a former CIO of a state agency, I have an interesting perspective. The job of the CIO and of agency program managers are to effectively carry out the missions of their agencies and to safeguard and collect and utilize data and information that helps them carry out their mission. The archives, on the other hand, is responsible for the care and preservation of that tiny percentage of records deemed to be of permanent value. As a percentage, it’s a very small piece but the archives really exist to hold onto the collective memory of the state and to safeguard people’s rights and interests and really be the memory and repository of those records that are no longer needed for operations in the state agencies.

Q:  How do you determine permanent value?

Patricia: Let’s give some context to what is of permanent value: vital records like birth and death certificates, i.e. those records that document the rights of citizens; records that document the informational infrastructure such as legislation and ordinances; records that document infrastructure of the state such as transportation records and waterways and important structures; or records that have context that give us the historical, cultural memory of the state.

Each state would have an appraisal policy like we do so when we go through the records, it is a small portion that is archived. The administrative function might be a fiscal need like audit; that might not be needed for permanent value.

One example that I can relay is that in Utah in the 1950s there was above ground atomic testing in Nevada and the winds came our way. Later, there was a high cancer rate. The records that we had in our archives proved residency and citizenship for those people who were in that specific area in the 1950s. This helped them get some of the benefits from the resolution of the case.

Tim: Today, an appraisal of records has always been one of the most difficult things for us at least in the generation that I’ve been in government. There have always been some records that are traditionally thought of as “we’ve got to hold onto these” – birth certificates, death records, marriage records, and church records before government kept these other vital records. Going forward, appraisal is one of the most difficult aspects of our work. How do you determine what is going to have ongoing legal, fiscal, administrative value? What is going to have research value down the road? That’s a very difficult thing to do but it’s not impossible. Appraisal starts with a very thoughtful and thorough evaluation as to why you create the records in the first place? What do you do with them? What is the context in which they were created?

In sum, you can’t hold onto everything. Government creates way too much in terms of record material to ever think you can attempt to hold onto and assert intellectual control and manage all the records that would be created. It has to be a very thoughtful exercise to make the right retention decisions.

Q: CoSA recently concluded its annual conference. What were the major issues discussed at the conference? What is the talk of the town among state archivists?

Patricia: The conference is an opportunity for archivists of the states and territories get together to talk and network about common problems and possible solutions. To a great extent it’s a business meeting but also an opportunity to look at common issues.

A great part of the conference was about our State Electronic Records Initiative (SERI) and the issues archives face when it comes to managing and preserving electronic records. The difference with information technology (IT) and archives is that we speak a different language. IT deals with a lot of records from a lot of agencies that have sensitive information and they’re trying to secure that information from a variety of risks and threats. In archives, we are really struggling because our problem is how to keep those electronic records as authentic records in a reliable system, enduringly.

Tim: One of the big issues for us at the last conference and I think of enduring concern is one of sustainability. We manage an enormous amount of information but archives are not necessarily viewed as a critical as, say, a criminal justice information system might be viewed and that has its pluses and its minuses. On the plus side, at least in my agency (the Maryland State Archives), we can fly below the radar avoiding controversial or political issues. On the other hand, we need resources like any other entity and we wind up not being the big boys at the table so to speak. I think sustainability is a big ongoing issue for us.

Also, open data.  There’s a lot of interest in open data these days and striking the balance between open data and privacy is an interesting phenomenon. Everybody in the world would love to go to an archives computer system and type in the name of their grandfather and find all of the records that pertained to that person but they would be horrified if someone could do that with their name. As archivists, we are generally about openness and providing access to the public but there’s also a lot of third party private interests that would just as soon harvest all of government records and monetize it. There are some of us who view that as a potential threat, not to our livelihood or wellbeing, but to the authenticity that Patricia spoke about.  I think our public information act or FOIA-type arrangements have always existed to cast a light on the inner operations of government and not necessarily to allow anyone the access to people’s personal information for whatever reason.

Patricia: A lot of states are engaged in transparency efforts. Utah is engaged in one where we work with our department of technology services and our division of finance. We have an open transparency website and are responsible for providing transparency through the Internet and it’s a struggle. There’s public information but then there’s accessibility online where everyone can see it. Each state is working through trying to figure out how much transparency should be on the Internet.

Tim: All of these open data efforts are great but it seems to me we’re spending too much time focused on how quickly can we get those committee votes out there on the Internet? How quickly can we take that big data set of health information and put it out there for public consumption? Lost in the discussion is – if we feel this data is so important that we must get it out there for public consumption, then we ought to think about how are we going to preserve it so that data is around not just next year but 100 years from now. Agencies often look at me kind of funny when I’m talking about transferring their records to us and giving us enough context and information to be able to present this information. I tell them that I have to preserve these records to the end of the republic and beyond. I have to be thinking about, is that data going to be useful 500 years from now? That’s a discussion that really needs to be engaged.

Q:  How do you deal with technology changes?

Tim: I think you have to establish some baseline standards for file format and presentation. We like to think of technology and what we do as a fairly mature environment, it’s not at all. I don’t think that we really know right now how we’re going to preserve the data we’re generating right now 50 years into the future. A lot of very smart people are thinking about it but the pace with which we’re generating data is mind-boggling.

The biggest failing that I see among us all right now is that – in the IT realm- there are too many of us in government who say to themselves “disc is cheap.” Part of all this infrastructure framework – we don’t really focus on information lifecycle management because we feel we don’t really need to. We’ll just migrate whatever data we have from the legacy system, we’ll create new data, and create new relationships but there’s not always an effort to think through information lifecycle management and what information we can safely and rightly get rid of sooner rather than later. Someday we’re going to realize we should have been thinking about those things.

Patricia: When we were working with paper, we would process through it, put it in the appropriate containers and file boxes and in an environmentally appropriate repository and we would be fairly sure that would be preserved. The thing that we have learned with electronic records is that it requires perpetual care. We cannot just put it on a disc and file it away because that disc might develop disc rot and information might not be there for future use. We have to continually review the information and test the information to make sure it’s still there and stable. We have to have redundant copies and continually plan. Even though we don’t know what will be in the future, we do know that we have to actively maintain it throughout its existence, more so than the formats we have dealt with before.

Q: Has cybersecurity come up as a topic within the archivist community?

Tim: I don’t think we really have engaged that discussion as a community and there are a variety of reasons for that. Most of us probably exist on a state owned or state managed network and even though we maintain our own firewalls, we also rely on the fact that we have a robust network operations center [and trust that] they’re keeping an eye on things on our behalf.

Patricia: To a great extent, it’s because we’re archives and most of the information we have is public information so it’s not at risk as [much as] a department of health would be.  People who would get into us, the information they obtain, they have a right to have anyway. The risk is that if we are tied to the state system, could they get through our system to another one. Our state is very active in cybersecurity because we have a cybersecurity audit every two years.

Tim: Our legislature has an audit arm and comes out and does a similar IT audit every 2 years and really takes a close look at our network and how its constructed and who’s doing what.

Patricia: As archives, we are looking to have secure systems. It is from a different side – we want to make sure records are safe, preserved, and trustworthy so we’re going through the same actions as information technology (IT). We’re not looking at cybersecurity threats but we’re trying to establish the same end result.

Q: What is important for state CIOs to know about state archives?

Patricia: We’re actually in a very similar business [with CIOs]. Even though we don’t look at CIOs as providing record management to agencies, by default they sometimes are in that they are assisting agencies  with their records, and that’s what archives are also trying to do. It would be wonderful if we could do that together. We have to get beyond the case of ‘we can just keep everything and put it in a legacy system and get out what we need.’ If, we could apply some record retention principles to this information, everyone would be better off. I think there are a lot of opportunities to work together and I’d like to see more of that.

Tim: I would like to see all of our IT community recognize that they have an incredibly important records management responsibility. Most of the time they are the only department with the word “information” in it. It’s been my experience that whether it’s a database manager or the guy that manages the storage arrays – they don’t really take ownership of the data. [IT personnel think] they just manage the network, the 1s and 0s but [they should try to understand] what the records are and why they might be important. We should really get into that discussion of how we construct systems so that we have information longevity or file format portability [especially] once those records are no longer necessary for government operations – those are the kind of records management responsibilities that we have kind of shied away from. Now, we really have to step up and take on those records management responsibilities and figure out a way to safeguard those records that we know will have some enduring value.

Q: October 10th is Electronics Records Day. What are the activities of the association? What do you hope to achieve?

Anne: CoSA has a very active committee that has developed terrific resource materials that are available from our website. You’ll find resources like tipsheets for government agencies that work with electronic records and managing e-communications in government.

We’ll be blogging and doing social media as we get closer to the date. The idea is to push the message about the importance of electronic records management and digital preservation out to the general public as well as to government agencies using our members’ own Electronic Records Day programming in their own states and territories.  The point is to encourage people to think and talk about the importance of digital material in our daily lives – how it gets collected, made accessible, and ultimately preserved for the future.   Just think about it: none of us are immune from the technological challenges in managing digital material, whether it’s the photos on our phone, accessing banking information or vital records from our state archives.   We really want to see a big buzz occur on social media for Electronic Records Day. Every year we get more buzz and more of our allied associations like NASCIO help get the word out by promoting it on their own websites and their own social media. So the goal is to get lots of people talking about it and pushing out stories to the media and also directly to the general public.

Tim: The Maryland State Archives is actually going to start on October 1st. On Saturday, we’re hosting a family history day and this will be our third such event. As part of that we try to focus on people’s their own electronic records, own collections and how they can safeguard them and make sure they endure into the future. Throughout the day, we’ll do presentations and seminars on how to use electronic assets of the state archives to do their own research and figure out their family history.

Patricia: The Utah State Archives puts out a lot of promotional materials both for government records creators and for other repositories throughout the state that hold historical records that might be in electronic format, especially digital format. We also put out guideline policy statements on how institutions can institute into their own repository or how a governmental entity can help preserve or maintain e-records in the future.

Q: What else is CoSA working on?

Anne: We’re active on several fronts, not just with e-records. We’re always watching federal funding to those agencies that fund archival projects like the National Historical Publication and Records Commission, which is the funding arm within the National Archives and Records Administration.

We’re also talking with elected officials about the long-term resource needs of state archives. We do some of that work in conjunction with the Society of American Archivists and with NAGARA as well. The three organizations meet regularly to talk about advocacy issues and we’ve published several joint statements which are on our websites. Earlier this year the three organizations published a joint statement on access to state and local records and the CoSA Board just approved a Statement on Developing and Maintaining a Strong State Archives.  On the programmatic front, the State Electronic Records Initiative (SERI) is in its sixth year and we’re looking forward to carrying that further. That’s been a huge project involving all the states and territories. There’s been a lot of assessment and a tremendous amount of training.  We’re now working on what SERI’s future should look like.  Finally, we’re getting ready to do our biennial survey of state archives and records management programs looking at the extent of holdings, and get a sense of how these holdings are growing. We’re looking at staffing, budgets – it’s a tremendous resource for our members and it’s also available on our website. We’ll be publishing the survey findings  early next year.

Q: How can state CIOs help with your e-records initiatives?

Tim: State CIOs could help with having a liaison work with the agencies and help conduct a thorough inventory and appraisal of records that are created. Appraisal is a huge part of our problem; it’s the beginning of what might be permanent and what we should hold onto forever. You can’t begin that awesome responsibility until you know what you have. I would bet that there’s not a single state that has a comprehensive inventory of all the digital assets that they create.

Patricia: I would love our Department of Technology Services to really be a partner in heling us build infrastructure [capacity]. We’ve tried for years to get our technology department help us build the infrastructure because we have a state where we’re required to use them. But they have had a framework of services they provide and archival services weren’t one of them. I think it should really be a partnership on the whole lifecycle of records. State CIOs can help us with our infrastructure because it needs to be big; maybe not as big as DTS but we need to have a big infrastructure to be able to support the e-records management and archives systems we are building.

CoSA State Electronic Records Initiative

CoSA: “The Importance of State Archives”

CoSA, NAGARA, and Society of American Archivists’ Joint Statement on Access to State and Local Records

CoSA Newsletter (with information about E-Records Webinar on 10/10/16)