Sunday, June 24, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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State seeks new digital archives

The Spokesman-Review

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CHENEY, Spokane County - 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," Hastings said. "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 archive 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.

Eastern, seeing opportunities to piggyback high-tech research onto the project, likes the idea.

State lawmakers recently approved money for designing the facility. The bulk of the construction funds would come from document-filing fees at county courthouses.

Close to becoming museums

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 old nine-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," Hastings said.

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 property lines in one of the first Medical Lake housing areas. The map was hand-drawn on coarse paper similar to that used today in grocery sacks, and it's now crumbling.

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, such as election ballots, can be discarded after a few months or years. But others, such as slaying 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," Coombs said.

Saving `grass-roots history'

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 Reed, the secretary of state, 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."

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 priority, Coombs said.

Gov. Booth Gardner's 1985-to-1993 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," Coombs 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, Coombs said, the more records have been lost. In the early days of computing, office workers routinely printed out important information.

But since about the mid-1990s, 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," Coombs said.

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

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

Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton and other record keepers say the facility can't come soon enough.


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