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The State Electronic Records Initiative: Content Matters Interview

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This is a Guest Post by Abbie Grotke, the Library of Congress Web Archiving Team Lead and Co-Chair of the National Digital Stewardship Alliance Content Working Group.

In this installment of the Content Matters interview series of the National Digital Stewardship Alliance Content Working Group, I interview Jim Corridan, President of the Council of State Archivists and Matt Veatch and Beth Shields, Co-Chairs of the State Electronic Records Initiative Steering Committee about their work.

Fairfield County 2010 Census Race/Ethnicity Distribution, By uconnlibrariesmagic, on Flickr
Fairfield County 2010 Census Race/Ethnicity Distribution, By uconnlibrariesmagic, on Flickr

Abbie: What is the Council of State Archivists?  What sorts of organizations are involved?

Jim, Matt and Beth: The Council of State Archivists is the non-profit association comprising the 56 directors of the principal archival agencies in each state and territorial government in the United States. In a majority of states, the state archivists also have responsibility for records management services.

Abbie: Could you tell us a bit about what you see as the primary value of state archives and government electronic records?

Jim, Matt and Beth: While not well understood, state archives play a critical role in our democracy. They collect the records — including electronic records — that ensure government transparency and accountability; protect the legal, civil and property rights of citizens; promote historically-informed public policy decisions; and preserve essential documentation of the nation’s history.

Abbie: How are the electronic records in state archives are being used and by what types of users?

Jim, Matt and Beth: At this early stage in the effort to collect digital materials, users of state archives electronic records appear to be similar to users of paper records — attorneys performing legal research, journalists reviewing governmental decisions, scholars investigating community history, teachers preparing lesson plans, students incorporating primary sources into research projects, property owners identifying previous residents of their homes and genealogists seeking family history. As state archives enhance their capacity to collect and make electronic records available online, the number and variety of users will expand and use cases will diversify.

Abbie: Tell us about the background of the State Electronic Records Initiative — how did it get started, and what are the goals?

Jim, Matt and Beth: State archives have long worked to address electronic records effectively and comprehensively. The first state electronic records initiative began in 1979 with a grant to the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. However, state archives have struggled to keep pace with the exponential increase in the volume and complexity of electronic records, particularly in the face of precipitous funding cuts over the last decade. Thus, what was for many years a major concern has now become a crisis.

In July 2011, CoSA launched the State Electronic Records Initiative,  the first comprehensive national effort to improve electronic records preservation in state government, with initial funding provided through Library Services and Technology Act grants from Indiana and Kentucky.  In Phase 1, each state archives and records management program completed a survey about their existing electronic records programs and participated in extended follow-up telephone interviews. Using this baseline data, CoSA established goals for additional SERI activities in four broad areas:

  • Education and training, to provide state archives staff with opportunities to develop the knowledge and skills required to collect, manage and preserve electronic records.
  • Awareness, to raise the level of support and knowledge of the electronic records issue among allied organizations and key stakeholders.
  • Governance, to integrate the electronic records management and archives requirements in decisions made during IT planning, procurement, systems development and operations.
  • Best practices and tools, to establish a resource center for electronic records standards, tools and policies and to develop pathways to success for strengthening archives and records management programs.

The SERI Steering Committee established subcommittees for each of the four areas of emphasis. Forty individuals representing twenty-three state and territorial archives contribute to the work of these very active subcommittees.

CoSA also received federal grant support for SERI activities in two of the four areas of emphasis. An IMLS Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian grant will fund continuing education scholarships and three immersive, week-long electronic records institutes for staff from all 56 state and territorial archives; and an NHPRC grant will support the development of an interactive web portal for electronic records training, tools and standards, designed specifically to the address the needs of government records archivists.

Delivering data, by, on Flickr
Delivering data, by, on Flickr

Abbie: What are the biggest digital preservation challenges faced by state archives and records management programs? Have any of those changed since the original survey took place?

Jim, Matt and Beth: State archives and records management programs face many of the same digital preservation challenges that other digital stewards are grappling with: identifying and implementing appropriate digital preservation tools and services; selecting the electronic records that warrant long-term preservation; automating ingest workflows; securing technical infrastructure; capturing adequate preservation metadata; adopting sound preservation planning practices; and providing consumer-friendly access to electronic records. A particularly challenging issue for most state archives is developing effective strategies for ensuring that records management and archival requirements receive appropriate consideration during government information system planning, procurement, design and implementation. State archives operate in an environment in which they are responsible for preserving electronic records of enduring value generated by dozens of different government agencies involved in an array of disparate lines of business. The electronic records produced within this government ecosystem are increasingly complex, interrelated and voluminous. If automated records management and archival functions are not embedded in government information systems, state archives will struggle to effectively preserve the American historical record. As noted earlier, state archives are attempting to meet the digital preservation challenge in an era of severe resource scarcity. SERI is designed to provide state archives with tools that will assist them with all of these challenges.

Abbie: Is there anything that surprised you about the survey results or self-assessments that have been performed as a part of SERI?

Jim, Matt and Beth: Considering that the electronic records issue has been on the radar screen for many years, it was somewhat surprising to see the relatively limited number of state archives that have implemented extensive electronic records programs. That being said, we should note that nearly all state and territorial archives recognize the importance of developing their electronic records programs and, in the months since the SERI Phase 1 assessment, many states have hired electronic records staff and/or launched new or expanded electronic records initiatives. We hope that upcoming SERI activities — particularly the electronic records institutes — will spur additional states and territories to engage digital preservation more aggressively.

Abbie: Your strategic training and education program sounds incredibly valuable and timely. What sorts of topics will be covered in the training? How many will be trained as a part of this program?

Jim, Matt and Beth: CoSA is enthusiastic about the potential impact of the IMLS-funded SERI education and training program.  The electronic records institutes kick off this summer with a one-week introductory session for state archives that are in the initial stages of establishing a digital preservation program. The curriculum for this intensive training camp will take a lifecycle approach to electronic records management and digital preservation and covers topics ranging from policy development, advocacy, collaboration and financial sustainability to metadata standards, workflows and trustworthy digital repositories.  In 2014, introductory institute attendees will have the opportunity to participate in one of two advanced electronic records institutes that will explore electronic records and digital preservation in more depth. State archives with more developed electronic records programs also will participate in one of the advanced institutes.  A series of webinars on specific digital preservation topics will round out the training opportunities afforded to electronic records institute participants.

In addition to the institutes, the SERI IMLS grant also provides all 56 states and territories with up to $1000 in grant funds to use for staff training on electronic records management and preservation. State archives can use these continuing education funds for off-site training, on-line training, collaborative regional training, or to bring training on-site.

Abbie: I noticed on your website that SERI has produced a video. Are there others planned?

Jim, Matt and Beth: While SERI has posted one YouTube video – Mary Beth Herkert, Oregon State Archivist, describing her state’s cloud-based records management system — we don’t have specific plans for additional videos. However, the electronic records institutes and work on the interactive web portal may generate opportunities to share our ideas through videos. CoSA is also developing a series of webinars on electronic records, and those too may soon be publicly available.

Abbie: What is the current focus of work for SERI? Where do you go from here?

Jim, Matt and Beth: The IMLS and NHPRC grant projects will continue to be SERI’s focus for the next 12 to 18 months. Beyond that, we are evaluating strategies for engaging CoSA’s stakeholders more effectively to enhance digital preservation awareness and expertise within the broader government information management community to develop a national understanding of the challenges and risks faced by electronic records and the potential losses of significant portions of the American story.


What kind of content matters to you? This is but one case for preserving valuable content for long term access.  If you or your institution would like to share your own story of use and long term value of access to a particular type of born-digital resources, please send us a note at [email protected] and in the subject line mark it to the attention of the Content Working Group. We would love to hear from you!

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