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Preserving the U.S. Constitution might be easier than preserving electronic records

by Lillie-Beth Brinkman Modified: January 8, 2013 at 5:00 pm •  Published: January 8, 2013

The Archives has been receiving electronic records from government agencies since 1970, although a formal program to store them didn't develop until about 1998, Lake said.

“The field of digital preservation is really still evolving,” Lake said. “Everybody is struggling with how, in a sustainable way, to provide access to all these electronic records that are created now to 20, 30, 50, 100 years or more.”

The electronic records office considers only about 2 percent of all the digital records created by federal agencies “permanently valuable” enough to get transferred to the National Archives.

Presidential emails

After President Bush's term ended in 2009, the archives took possession of about 82 terabytes of electronic presidential records, which included about 200 million emails, Lake said. The Obama administration's electronics trail in four years is already estimated at much more than that generated in Bush's eight years. Some information, like emails, from Bush's term will be available to the public under Freedom of Information requests next year; other pieces won't be released to the general public for 72 years. Both releases are set by law.

“We have to make sure that in 72 years, when it's time to release those to the general public, that they're in a format that's easily accessed,” Lake said. “We're just going to have to monitor the changes in technology.”

He said one way to do this was to transfer records from one format to more durable, widely used formats and monitoring those as new ones develop. Typically, it doesn't include keeping working machines with old software sitting around, although that's another preservation possibility, Lake said.

“Our goal is not to have to do any of that.”

Behind the scenes

Behind the scenes, away from the public vaults, Lake's records area has teams of people that concentrate on different areas — like video preservation or working with agencies to schedule record transfers. Teams back up archives records in different states and monitor technology changes.

They also make sure the public has access to records online, whether that involves scanning old documents or offering databases for public access.

Lake started out at the Archives 18 years ago as a “traditional kind of archivist,” working in military and civil records, he said.

He acquired his information technology background working on databases and learned more as the division's needs grew. His job has evolved as he works to manage the influx of records.

Visiting the Archives online or in person, people can read the letters from presidents like Abraham Lincoln and records of individuals who served in the military. They can also explore other databases of information that the Archives preservationists have figured out how to share.

“It's never going to be a static system that's done,” he said. “We're kind of an island focused on the really large issues.”