WASHINGTON — In Washington, D.C., an estimated 1 million people stop by the National Archives Rotunda each year to see the country's hallowed, original founding documents — the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, grouped in an exhibit known as the “Charters of Freedom.”
These documents are faded and now displayed under dim lighting to prevent them from fading even more.
As records become more digital, however, it might be easier to preserve the physical form of these nearly 240-year-old documents than the much newer electronic ones generated by people — and the U.S. government — every day on their computers. Paper is stable; electronic records and the technology used to create them are not.
And while people are wrestling with organizing photos and other digital documents on their home computers on a gigabyte-sized scale (or a few terabytes at most), the National Archives and Records Administration is dealing with the same issues on a much more massive scale. An entire electronic records division, which formed in 1998 as a program and in 2005 as a separate electronics repository, has to address questions like these:
Which records should the government preserve for the history of the republic, and which ones are not important?
How can the government make sure that the records are readable or viewable 50, 100 or 200 years from now or longer, when current technology won't last that long? Will a jpeg format commonly used to view photos on a computer exist 50 years from now? What software will be able to open a Microsoft Word document?
Is every presidential email essential to save in a world where email exchanges are growing exponentially?
How does an agency decide what constitutes an official record worthy of sending to the archives?
The National Archives also receives electronic records from federal agencies to preserve as part of the nation's historical record.
Typically, agencies send them years after their creation. How can the Archives present these records so that existing or future technology can still access them?
“I have the same issues at home that I do here at work,” said David C. Lake, the base user liaison for the Electronics Records Archives program office. “I've got my family records ... lots of photographs of my kids. ... It's interesting listening to system administrators talk about backup strategies that I have (at home).”
The public vaults
Just off the rotunda where the “Charters of Freedom” are displayed are the National Archives and Records Administration's Public Vaults, a permanent, interactive exhibit that shows off some of the other documents that the Archives has deemed important to U.S. history and understanding.
Photographs, films, audio recordings, records searches, original letters and other documents are all on display so visitors can explore this country's story and understand the role of the National Archives and Records Administration in preserving it.
The Public Vaults, which opened in 2004, touches on records preservation and photo storage in people's own homes as it explains what the Archives tries to do for the entire government.
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.
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.”