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Washington State Launches Digital Archive System
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Posted On October 4, 2004
At 11 a.m. PDT today (Oct. 4), Washington state's Secretary of State Sam Reed officially launched the new Archive Management Center in Cheney, Wash., and unveiled the beta of its new Digital Archive system (http://www.digitalarchives.wa.gov). The new system is designed to stem the loss of key government electronic records. Archivists have estimated that the state of Washington is missing more than half of its previous electronic records, and many may never be recovered. State archivists worked with Microsoft and EDS to design a system that will permanently preserve critical records and enable unprecedented access to these born-electronic documents. The new permanent archival solution will include e-mail and electronic documents from governors, legislators, and other elected officials as well as records important to those researching their ancestors.

In announcing the Digital Archives, Reed said: "If Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address on a laptop, we may not have it today. Electronic records have been disappearing at an alarming rate because we've had no means to preserve them. These are records we need to make public policy, to conduct day-to-day business, and to prepare for the future."

By the way, you may remember hearing about Reed in another initiative to preserve history. He's the one who fought to save the Washington State Library when the governor threatened to shut it down in 2002. The Legislature then gave him the task of managing it (http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/wndreader.asp?ArticleID=17220).

State digital archivist Adam Jensen said the Digital Archives system will continue to develop in functionality over the next few months and is expected to be in full production by the end of the year. The archive will eventually hold a wide range of material—from birth, marriage, death, census, military, and naturalization records to historic records like the state constitution and the first election results in Washington Territory. The state estimates that in 15 years, citizens could access up to 800 terabytes (the equivalent of 200 billion pages of text) of public records and history from their home computers.

Jensen explained that the project has been in planning for several years. Following a proof of concept done in December 2003 and a bid process, the state chose Microsoft and EDS over other solutions, as this plan exceeded the state requirements. Microsoft and EDS used the Microsoft Windows Server System and Visual Studio .NET 2003 to create the Digital Archive system.

  • The Microsoft SQL Server 2000 database is used to store archived records for long-term retrieval.
  • Microsoft BizTalk Server 2004 is used to connect hundreds of state and local government offices with the Digital Archives so legal and historical records can be transmitted and archived automatically and electronically with no human involvement of any kind.
  • Windows Server 2003, Internet Security and Acceleration Server (ISA), and Host Integration Server are part of the architecture for the Digital Archives.
  • Microsoft Visual Studio .NET 2003 integrated development environment (IDE) is one of the primary development tools.

According to Jensen, the system will continuously "ingest" hundreds of thousands of digital records of varying content types, apply appropriate metadata, then index and securely store the assets. The system creates a Web-viewable version, while original records are maintained intact. The electronic records are protected with a digital "lock," redundant copies, and off-site backups.

Reed said the state's Digital Archives answers a nationwide call to protect digital records left perishable by advancing technology and the Internet. "The delete key on computers across the country is eating away at the daily record of government…." Jensen indicated that many other states are working to procure funds for archival initiatives, but no other state has a full system in place like Washington's.

Caryn Wojcik, government records archivist for the Michigan Historical Center and secretary of the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators (NAGARA), said that all states recognize the criticality of the situation and are working to do what they can with available resources. She indicated that Washington state procured a strong funding base and has developed a unique and sophisticated system. Based on information from a survey and report done for NAGARA (http://www.nagara.org), she said that other states are working on guidelines, policies, and creating educational tools, and some state archivists have taken custody of electronic records within their state and are actively working to preserve them. But, she said she is not aware of any other state that has this kind of full system in place.

Wojcik explained that it's hard for state archivists to obtain the resources—financial, human, and technological—and garner sufficient attention to the issues involved. She warns officials: "If you neglect your data and the media it's stored on, it becomes plastic." She also talked of the challenges of coping, for example, with 30 years of critical data stored on varying formats of magnetic tapes—some stored in a boiler room!—with no data translation dictionary or system documentation.

Washington state is also ahead of the federal government in actually providing an archival solution for electronic records—not surprising, considering the diversity, complexity, and enormous volume of records involved. The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) launched its Electronic Records Archive (ERA) project in 1998. It spent more than 5 years researching the problems and possibilities. In August 2004, NARA awarded two contracts for the design of ERA (one to Lockheed Martin and one to Harris Corp.) after a rigorous competitive process. At the end of a 1-year competition, NARA will select one of these two contractors to actually build ERA. Its goal is to have a functional subset of the system operational in 2007, with full operation by 2011.

Lockheed Martin has since subcontracted with EDS to work with it on the ERA design. According to a spokesperson from EDS, the solution designed for Washington could be leveraged to other states and across various different business and industry applications. Washington state has ownership of its system, but not over the solution design.


Paula J. Hane is a freelance writer and editor covering the library and information industries. She was formerly Information Today, Inc.’s news bureau chief and editor of NewsBreaks.


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