4/26/12: Electronic Records in the National Archives

April 26, 2012

My associate and I just returned from a week in the Washington, D.C. area doing research in the records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. The sheer volume of material that was relevant to the subject of our research was astounding. Back in the day when carbon paper was used, agency staff made multiple copies of each document and mailed them to every single office that might have some interest in the issue. In addition, government agency filing systems were such that some memos applied to multiple subject areas, and were copied for each of those area files, as well. Consequently, the silver bullet letter you might find on day 2 of your research ceases to be quite as exciting when you see it for the 3rd, 4th or 5th time in what might be the 25th box you’ve examined! Nevertheless, the duplication of records made me ponder today’s modern archival problem: the lack of duplication. I know that there are archivists at the national level (and probably some at the state level) that have devised policies for archiving email communications, but I wonder about future historians who will undoubtedly see a major gap in communication during the period when emails weren’t kept or recorded. I am certain that a large amount of information was left uncaptured during the early days of electronic communications (and probably still today), and can’t help but be concerned over what this will mean to the historians of the 1990s.

As summer approaches, SHRA is planning a number of research trips, and I intend to do an informal survey of how archivists are handling this modern problem. We will be in facilities ranging from regional branches of the National Archives to state historical societies and university archives. I’ll plan to report back on this point once I hear what these facilities are doing about this challenge.