Monday, June 11, 2001


Bytes of history
Cheney archives would preserve records -- digitally

Richard Roesler
Staff writer

Shawn Jacobson - The Spokesman-Review
Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton unrolls a plat map of Hill's First Addition, Spokane, 1897. The second floor of the Spokane County Courthouse stores records dating back to Spokane's beginnings.

OLYMPIA -- Tucked away among thousands of documents in Olympia's bombproof state archives is a technological oddity: reels of wire recordings from the 1930s.

Archivists think the grooved wires probably are audio records of Depression-era hearings in the state House of Representatives. But no one's sure.

“That was high-tech back then," said David Hastings, chief of archival services. “But we don't have a clue of how to read them."

Archivists are facing a growing problem with the 21st-century equivalent of such old-technology woes. After three decades of fast-changing computer hardware and software, the long-term preservation of critical electronic records has become a complicated mess. And key historical information, state and local officials say, is disappearing forever.

“It's the last few years that we were starting to get really scared," said Hastings. “Up until a few years ago, if something was really important, they'd print it out."


Help may be on the way. Secretary of State Sam Reed wants to build a $14 million government archives at Eastern Washington University in Cheney. It would include an 11,000-square-foot “digital archives," the first state facility of its kind in Washington, to store electronic records. EWU, seeing opportunities to piggyback high-tech research onto the project, likes the idea.

Friday, the state Senate approved a budget that includes money for designing the facility. The bulk of the construction funds would come from

document filing fees at county courthouses.

For now, the five state archives, which store records from hundreds of state and local government agencies, are trying hard to avoid becoming museums of archaic technology.

At the Olympia archive, for example, workers have a 1940s Dictaphone, so they can listen to old acetate disk recordings of the state Legislature. The complex also stores decades-old 9-track computer tapes and 12-inch floppy disks.

Workers were stymied last year, when someone found stacks of magnetic punch cards among 1980s papers from Gov. John Spellman.

“What do you do with those? Try to find a mag-card reader these days," said Hastings.

In Spokane, County Auditor Vicky Dalton is familiar with such problems. For the past few years, the county's been saving critical data on what are essentially plate-sized compact discs. Now they're switching to a hard-drive storage system.

“What is it going to be in three years?" Dalton said. “And my successor three generations from now has to have the ability to read these things.

“You may have data, but if you don't have the hardware and software to read it, you've got nothing," she said. “Fifty years from now, all of our data might be stored on crystals."

For centuries, libraries and archives have wrestled with the problem of simply preserving parchment or paper records.

“Paper is food," said the state archivist, Phil Coombs, standing amid century-old ledgers in the state's underground archives complex in Olympia. “There are bugs out there that love to eat this stuff. There's fungi, mold."

Sometimes, the paper itself is the problem. At the Spokane County Courthouse, no one's quite sure what to do with an 1880 map that details the property lines in one of the first housing areas in Medical Lake. The map was hand-drawn on coarse paper similar to that used today in grocery sacks, and it's now crumbling apart.

Government entities from the state Legislature to tiny cemetery districts generate tremendous amounts of documents: deeds, water rights, school records, marriage certificates, meeting minutes, letters, prisoner records, court cases. Some things, like election ballots, can be discarded after a few months or years. But others, like murder investigations or property records, must be kept forever.

Seemingly obscure information can be critical for historians, genealogists, legal researchers and property owners.

One man researching his family history discovered that he had an uncle who'd owned property on Seattle's Lake Union waterfront. Then he discovered he was that uncle's only surviving relative.

“He walked out a millionaire," said Coombs.

Strolling down a corridor, Coombs peered at document boxes.

“Tumwater planning commission minutes from 1981," he read. “Flood report from Clackamas County. Court docket, city of Chehalis. Mugshots from Aberdeen."

He pulled out a leather-bound volume. It held handwritten property deeds from 1885, when Washington was still a territory.

“It's extremely important to record that kind of grass-roots history," said Secretary of State Sam Reed, who's leading a campaign to protect the records and encourage more public use of them. “These records are one of the best-kept secrets in the state of Washington."

Legal researchers frequently comb the files. During the state's lawsuit against tobacco companies, tobacco lawyers brought in their own copy machines and spent a full year combing 6,000 boxes of state records for any indication that the state deliberately ignored evidence of smoking's health risks because the tobacco tax was a good source of revenue. They never found what they wanted.

Gathering complete records is often difficult. Around 1950, Spokane County took ownership of numerous small cemeteries scattered throughout the area.

But the records had disappeared over the decades, and even today, Dalton said, there are cemeteries in Spokane that no one can find, much less identify individual graves. In such small units of government, it often falls to a single volunteer to maintain the records. If that person dies, family members may simply toss out the boxes of documents.

“These are not dead, dry, dusty records. These are people's lives," she said. “This is our history."

In recent years, the growing dominance of electronic records has complicated things. As people switched from paper to computer screens, and then to different operating systems and software, long term record-keeping was rarely a high priority, said Coombs.

Gov. Booth Gardner's 1985 to 1992 administration, for example, used an early form of e-mail, with white text on a black computer screen. Coombs said all those e-mails have been lost. So have informal attorney general's opinions and letters, water rights documents, government correspondence, and maintenance records.

“It's not just history," he said. “It's a dangerous thing. It's like the Russian practice of defining history du jour."

Ironically, the more confident people have become with electronic documents, he said, the more records have been lost. In the early days of computing, office workers routinely printed out important information. But since about the mid1990s, an increasing number of government documents have never made it onto paper -- they exist only on a computer. As such, they're easily deleted when the hard disk or server gets crowded.

“I don't know how much has been lost simply because people needed file room," said Coombs.

The state archives now generally accept electronic records only on compact disc. And since the metal in compact discs degrades over decades, the state workers quickly convert the data on the CDs into long-lived microfilm.

The Eastern Washington archives would include 17,000 cubic feet of storage space for paper records from hundreds of government agencies throughout Eastern Washington. The digital section of the building would take up half as much space, and hold much more data.

Dalton and other record keepers say the facility can't come soon enough.

That's the same point Reed made in late February, testifying before a House committee.

“We are losing our history as we speak," he said.

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