Notes from the 20th Anniversary of the National Archives and Records Administration Panel Discussion
Comments by Robert Horton, State Archivist, Minnesota Historical Society
Friday, May 20, 2005
Let me begin with a caveat - in answering David's questions, I'm speaking from the perspective of the states, but with experience gained from a situation that needs an introduction.
In Minnesota, the state archives is not part of state government. We're based in the Minnesota Historical Society, a private, non-profit institution. Our charge is to collect records of historical value. We don't have any records management function; neither does the state, in fact, as the central RM office was zeroed out a few years back. In contrast to the disinterest in RM, MN has an over-developed concern with privacy. Our equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act starts with a declaration that all records should be publicly accessible and then follows with 90 pages of exceptions. Funding is down. State government is reducing overhead and administrative costs, focusing on core services, with an increasingly ruthless disdain for anything else that adds to the budget. And, last, we don't really even have a state archives anymore - the Society re-organized in December, aggregating all the departments that quot;collectedquot; into a single collections department, with government records part of a whole that now includes everything from books to wedding dresses to TV news footage to pottery shards.
I don't know where that puts us in the evolutionary scale, whether we're among the first to crawl out of the ocean and try to make it on dry land or whether we're the duck billed platypus of archives. I suspect it's the former - that our experiences will be more, not less common, both for the states and NARA. And I should add that I recognize both the qualitative and quantitative differences between NARA and any state archives, but for the sake of a brief presentation, I've decided to be more blunt than Delphic. I'll argue we are all facing the same trends and we'll need to find ways to collaborate. So then the question becomes quot;how does a government archives beat the odds?quot; What can we do to grow, to use technology or even just to survive?
One experience crystallized my thinking about this presentation. In the London Review of Books, I started to read an article with a quotation from a government report. That quotation had a footnote and being a footnote and government records kind of guy, I glanced down to the bottom of the page, expecting to see the usual. Instead, I saw this:
quot;To find the full text of the ruling, type 'UKHL56' into Google.quot;
The professional part of me was taken aback - because I could see all the problems here. But then I tried Google and I had the whole document right there in front of me. And I realized the difference between the professionals' and the patrons' perspectives and expectations here. The professional knows that the new and emerging technologies are like icebergs - there are a host of decisions, investments, changes and institutions below the water and out of sight. And they'll do the real damage.
However, our patrons want us to support their routine. They expect transparency. They don't want to sort out the conflicting missions of disparate repositories when they look for a report any more than they want to know about the principles of internal combustion when they get into their car. They just want to get where they're going. So I think that's our challenge ... to get where they're going. We can do that, but it will cost money. It will demand some change.
Those are big problems for any government agency these days. But they are especially challenging for the archival profession as I think our reach has always exceeded our grasp; virtually every government archives has a statutory mission more ambitious than it could ever hope to achieve. In the face of that, to manage our responsibilities practically, we'll need partners. Technology in particular has simply raised the ante too high; we need collaborators in virtually every application.
One opportunity for collaboration is e-government. Yes, e-government is something of a fad and we can envision the familiar picture of the e-pilgrim's progress past a peak of exhilaration and into a trough of disillusionment, both equally irrational. But e-government is where government is investing and every e-government plan puts a premium on the necessity of finding, sharing, and providing access to information. E-government means sending information across organizational boundaries, formally defining plans to create and share records among different agencies, different levels of government and even different sectors, public and private. Those arrangements and agreements, to work, to be trustworthy, need consciously and clearly delineated responsibilities for creating, safeguarding and providing access to information.
Moving in that direction implies two things. First, we need to treat technology as an opportunity. All too often, we treat technology as a problem and, in response, we try to increase the amount of control we have over users and records creators. If they had fewer options, then our jobs would be easier. But that will not happen. Our partners will expect us to make their jobs easier. We need to add value to what they do.
The other implication is that we'll build capacity by developing projects, by doing something that offers an immediate return. To do that, we'll have to work with defined constituencies, to enlist their collaboration and to understand their needs. That calls for some conscious decisions, an active appraisal of our potential partners, and actively looking for ways to work with them. We'll also have to determine which needs we can support. Constituents, of course, will differ widely in their needs, but if I can offer one generalization about the use of technology it's this: look at Google.
Google is both developing content and providing better tools to use it. Both are important, but the tools, different and innovative means of access, are especially important. People are asking for and getting increasingly sophisticated technologies that allow them to search all that they've ever created and then retrospectively and collaboratively assign values to information, as needed, on demand, as appropriate to the dynamic aspects of their work.
We, obviously, can't save everything for everybody. But we can save demonstrably valuable information; we can layer it with other information, in a critical mass; we can use technology to make it all available online; and we can provide ever more sophisticated tools to make that information more and more useful. If we can't do everything for all people, we can certainly focus and prioritize our efforts to deliver useful products and services to key constituencies.
That will help us to demonstrate the value of our work to our resource allocators, in the executive and legislative branches, for whom we have to prove ourselves on an ongoing basis. That will help us to build the capacity we need to manage electronic records. I don't think we can do that simply with claims to a high moral ground, of supporting democracy, the citizens' right to know and accountability. When we're at the MN state capitol, in line and cap in hand, everybody is making such claims, everyone is wrapped in the flag.
In an environment where the competition for government support will be more and more difficult, for years to come, we need to point to real products, visible successes and pleased, vocal constituents. Again, my ideas certainly reflect the environment in Minnesota, as well as the odd epiphany from a footnote in the London Review of Books. But what I suggest recognizes that we have collectively experienced a technological revolution in the past decade. And it underscores that we have not experienced the corresponding and overdue institutional and professional revolution that is the appropriate and necessary response. In the face of that, I don't think we can find comfort in the past - what we've always done, what we do best, what has traditionally defined our profession. Instead, as I noted earlier, our constituents have expectations, they want to get where they're going. I think that's our challenge ... to get where they're going, to get there first.