Helping Congress Archive Their Personal Digital Files

U.S. Capitol Building. Photo by the Library of Congress.

U.S. Capitol Building. Photo by the Library of Congress.

By early December 2014, a Congressional election year, newly elected Members of Congress were preparing for public service as outgoing Members were ending their public service and attending exit briefings. At an event sponsored by the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress, the December 3rd “Life After Congress” seminar, Robin Reeder, Archivist of the U.S. House of Representatives, offered records management advice to each of the thirty or so Members of Congress in attendance. She talked to them about best practices for saving both textual and electronic records, about deeds of gift and transferring records to a repository and how these steps help preserve the legacy of their service in Congress.

House and Senate rules define official records as any records, regardless of format, that are created or received in the course of the business conducted by congressional committees. These official committee records are eventually transferred to the National Archives and Records Administration where they are preserved as the historical record of the work of Congress. In contrast, the rules designate the papers of a Member’s congressional office as being outside the scope of official records. Members maintain ownership of records created in the course of their congressional service, are responsible for effectively managing them, and determine the ultimate disposition of these papers. Members’ papers comprise both textual and electronic records and include things like personal notes, legislative research files, photos and correspondence with constituents.

In 2008, the U.S. Congress officially stated as much in House Concurrent Resolution 307 (PDF): “Members’ Congressional papers…should be properly maintained; each Member of Congress should take all necessary measures to manage and preserve the Member’s own Congressional papers; and each Member of Congress should be encouraged to arrange for the deposit or donation…with a research institution that is properly equipped to care for them, and to make these papers available for educational purposes….”

The archivists of the House and Senate provide guidance as Members of Congress  transition on and off Capitol Hill — as does the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress — but they all acknowledge the unique considerations Members of Congress face in preserving their personal digital documents. “Especially now because Members of Congress work almost exclusively on computers,” said Reeder. “Paper is quite secondary. So it’s important to preserve things digitally because that’s how they’re being created and managed.”

At the beginning of a new Member’s Congressional term, the House and Senate archivists offer Congressional staff information and guidance about best practices for record keeping. The purpose for this guidance is to keep records orderly and useful. But the archivists are also keenly aware of the potential historical value and significance of each Congress Member’s personal documents — such as correspondence, sponsored legislation, responses to issues in the Member’s congressional district and photos — and how these documents might serve future Members of Congress, students, historians scholars and other researchers. With this long-term preservation in mind, the archivists send out records-management information to Congressional staff regarding issues such as:

  • Setting up file systems – paper and digital.
  • File organization and naming conventions.
  • Setting up an “Archive” folder on a shared drive in which to archive digital documents.

Ultimately the archivists would like Congressional staff to manage the Congress Member’s personal digital files in a way that will be useful both now and down the road when she or he leaves office. “We do recommend that there be one person on staff who is in charge of records management so that there’s one person making the decisions about how to save things and what formats in which to save things,” said Heather Bourk, Assistant Archivist of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Bourk concedes that many new Members of Congress are usually just trying to manage the immediate demands of their work and the massive amount of information that cascades through the office, while preserving a Member’s legacy becomes a secondary concern.  In the daily Congressional workflow, digital records management can have a higher priority than digital  records preservation. “Our primary role is to provide guidance on how to preserve records for the long term and ensure future accessibility,” said Bourk. “But we often just get a lot of questions about how to manage current files.” The archivists hope that digital records management and preservation will become equally important.

The U.S. Capitol building, 1827. The Frances Loeb Library, Harvard Graduate School of Design.

The U.S. Capitol building, 1827. The Frances Loeb Library, Harvard Graduate School of Design.

The House and Senate issue departing Members guidelines that detail procedures and list resources within each institution. When a Member of Congress comes to the end of his or her tenure, the manuals are clear about the exit policy and closing out the office: what to do with a computer, settling expenses, the procedures for returning equipment and so on. Congressional archivists add digital records management guidance to the discussion. “House and Senate Archivists provide formal guidance to committees on archiving official committee records,” said Richard Hunt, director of the Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives, “and informal guidance to members on archiving personal papers.”

If the Member of Congress does not have a destination in mind for the digital files — a library or educational institution, a state archives or historical society or a center — the archivists want to make sure that the files are at least well-preserved for the time being. Ideally, when the files are transferred to a research repository, a professional archivist will take over the digital curation.

The U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress — an organization whose members donate time for public service after they leave Congress — also tries to help members transition off of Capitol Hill. The increasing urgency of proper digital preservation has become apparent to the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress in recent years and they, too, want to ensure that Members of Congress get the most comprehensive advice available about preserving personal digital files. The U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress, like the House and Senate archivists, would like outgoing members of Congress to manage their digital files wisely while in office and leave office with those files “archive ready.” Together with the National Archives and the archivists of the House and Senate, the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress gathers information about best practices.

To that end, last summer Peter Weichlein, the CEO of the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress, contacted NDIIPP because NDIIPP’s personal digital archiving resources had come to his attention. He and his colleagues wanted to determine what essential information to communicate and why. We discussed the challenge from two perspectives:

  • The experiences of archivists at Congressional research centers — how they ingested and processed digital files and what they would suggest to Members of Congress to help improve the process from donor to archive
  • What an individual Member of Congress can and should do to maintain his or her electronics files and ensure those files are “archive ready.”

I talked with Ray Smock, the director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies at Shepherd University about some of the challenges the Center faced in importing and processing Senator Byrd’s digital files. Smock said that one challenge was processing the variety of file formats. “We discovered 125 different formats, although most are various early versions of Word Perfect or Word,” said Smock. “This means we will have to learn how to use specialized tools to convert these formats and provide for future migration to newer software.  Future migration of current or past digital records is a monumental issue of its own.”

There is not much a Member of Congress can do about file formats though, except — when using software that is not widely used by their peers — to be aware that there may difficulty accessing those files in the future. When in doubt, Members and their staff can consult the archivists of the House and Senate for advice.

Popular software — software that is widely used — has a larger base of stakeholders and so stands a better chance of accessibility in the future than little-used or obscure software. For example, members of Congress can export email from their Microsoft Outlook accounts as PST files, an “open proprietary” format that trained digital archivists can convert to other formats. Other formats are not so convertible.

Senator Byrd also used a constituent correspondence management system, which is still used by most Members of Congress. The system enables Congressional staff to manage the correspondence between citizens and Member of Congress, and track and tag emails — along with memos and calendars — and sort it all into topics. Since the system is proprietary, it exports Members’ files — and all of the files’ complex data relationships — in a proprietary format accessible only by that system (although its creators recently enabled the export of a narrow slice of that data into MS Access files). The Congressional Papers Roundtable,  a Society of American Archivists working group, continues to explore possible solutions for enabling Members of Congress to export all of the constituent data from that system into a system-agnostic format, so digital archivists at Congressional research centers can restore it within their own systems. Smock said the correspondence itself, in and of itself, is historic. “It’s great for telling the story of a district or a state because you are hearing directly from the people who live there,” he said.

Eventually, Weichlein’s group issued a two-page tip sheet (PDF) that addresses essential steps and basic best practices for organizing and backing-up digital files. The tip sheet also goes into detail about scanning (based in part on input from the Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines Initiative) because scanning documents is still a great task for outgoing Members — not all of their digital files are born digital — and the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress wanted assurance that Congressional staff could be directed to scan paper photos and documents correctly.

Bourk is optimistic about the improving personal archiving practices among Congressional staff, especially among the incoming staff who seem to quickly grasp the significance of digital preservation, even if they’re swamped by work. She said she would like Congress members to think about digital preservation — and where those files will someday reside — sooner rather than later. “We encourage [House members] to consider their legacy at the outset of their Congressional service and think about donating the papers somewhere,” said Bourk. “We strongly recommend that they pick an institution very early on and contact that institution as soon as possible to speak to their archivists and librarians, particularly about electronic records.”

“We hope to guide people to a more orderly transfer of their material when the time comes,” said Bourk.

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