Electronic Archiving So Far Is One Tough Slog

Posted April 29, 2009 at 6:34pm

Back in December 2006, the National Archives and Records Administration held little more than 1.4 gigabytes of Congressional electronic records — information that would fit on the smallest iPod, with room to spare.

But by the end of this year, NARA will have 21,000 gigabytes of information, and the number will grow exponentially from there.

It’s no surprise: Congress is now a creature of the electronic age, using computers to discuss legislation, store sensitive information and write just about every document used in the legislative process.

By House and Senate rules, committees have to save it all. And the National Archives is tasked with storing and preserving that electronic information.

But some have doubts over whether the agency is properly equipped to handle the onslaught of Web sites, e-mails, text files and high-definition video.

So far, the Archives has one employee dedicated to collecting Congress’ electronic records and a few interim storage devices to hold the information.

And the agency’s long-term solution — the Electronics Records Archives — is still without a proposal for how to handle Congressional records.

“We think this is a huge problem, and we’ve been told that the technology isn’t there,— said Anne Weismann, chief counsel of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “It appears to us that NARA’s relying on ERA to save the day, and there’s serious doubts that it will.—

When complete, ERA is supposed to house all the federal government’s electronic archives — from the White House to Congress to special commissions and investigations.

So far, it has cost about $300 million, and Archives officials say they plan to ask for more funding for years to come. Financial Services Director Valerie Spargo said the total cost of the project is unknown, since it “depends on future budget appropriations.—

In the meantime, Congressional staffers have switched over most of their work to computers. But over the years, with nowhere to put it, files were deleted or forgotten.

Acting Archivist Adrienne Thomas conceded that some parts of history have been lost forever to a computer’s trash bin. But she said the agency couldn’t develop a system for Congressional electronic records until it knew the volume and nature of those records.

“I think we’re making tremendous progress with respect to electronic records,— she said this week at a meeting of the Advisory Committee on the Records of Congress. “It’s just a monumental problem throughout the government that we’re facing.—

Indeed, preserving electronic records is a challenge that has dogged archivists for years. Formats change, equipment deteriorates and technology evolves. Computers also breed volume: the Bush presidency, for example, had 50 times more electronic information than the Clinton administration.

Martha Morphy, assistant archivist for information services, called ERA “operational,— pointing out that it already holds some of the records from the Bush administration, is ready to hold more and has a search system in place.

But that system apparently isn’t suitable for Congress — a fact only discovered in the past year. Now, the Archives is working with contractor Lockheed Martin to make what Morphy called “enhancements— to ERA so it can hold legislative records.

“We have to make sure for legislative records that the legislative folks are able to access the records the way they need to access them,— she said.

The proposal is due by the end of May, and Lockheed will begin developing the system in June, Morphy said. Completion will take about a year, she added.

But the information is already pouring into NARA’s Center for Legislative Archives after Archives officials told Congress they were ready to take more files. Over the past year, Congressional committees have begun handing over years of CDs, floppy disks and hard drives.

Instead of going into ERA — as originally planned — they are all being put on store-bought hard drives in the center’s office (with copies sent for safekeeping elsewhere). Of its 17 full-time employees, the center has one information technology specialist dedicated to handling all of Congress’ electronic records.

That IT specialist, Ted Clark, estimates that Congress will hand off about 21,000 gigabytes — or about 21 terabytes — of information by December. Right now, the center has 8 terabytes of storage; officials expect to have to buy 16 to 20 more terabytes of storage by the end of the year, Clark said.

In essence, the floodgates are open and the onslaught promises to only increase. Most House committees haven’t even begun to hand over their electronic records, and Senate committees have just started.

Last year, for example, the House Homeland Security Committee delivered 20 gigabytes of files to Archives, which only included committee hearings. Legislation, video, e-mail — that will be substantially more.

“We have engaged the enemy, but we don’t know how big an army they are yet, and we need to [prepare] ourselves,— Clark said at the advisory hearing, adding that Archives has won the “early skirmishes.—

But the problem doesn’t just lie with the volume of information — it’s also with the organization.

While Congress does 80 percent of its work on computers, staffers are still learning what’s important to keep and how to organize it, said Karen Paul, the Senate’s archivist.

“It isn’t just putting things in a box,— she said. “It’s arrangement, it’s description, it’s sending things out of here that are going to be helpful to researchers.—

Committees are by-and-large good about archiving paper records. But neither chamber has set standards for electronic record-keeping, meaning staffers have mostly been making it up as they go. Handing over unorganized files to Archives isn’t really helpful; the files have to be in context to be meaningful.

John Wonderlich, of the Sunlight Foundation, said cultural resistance seems to be stunting efforts in Congress. On a computer, he said, “it’s so easy to sweep it under the rug.—

“I’m hoping that culturally and institutionally, Congress does a much better job conserving their own information,— he said. “That will give us an unprecedented window on history.—

So far, House and Senate officials have set up a working group to come up with archiving standards and ways to educate staffers on what to save and how to organize it. NARA’s Center for Legislative Archives also plans to hire two more IT specialists to help in the task of collecting committee data.

“If we cannot meet the challenge of electronic archiving, then there simply won’t be a record in the future,— Paul said. “I believe we’re on the right track, but it will not happen overnight.—