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Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota’s natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Lindsay Schott's blog

Shifting Toward the Digital Age in State Archives

The North Dakota State Archives is the official repository of the historic records of state and local government entities in North Dakota. These records have permanent value because they document the organization, functions, and transactions of state and local governments. For example, after each administration, the Office of the Governor transfers all permanent records with historic value to the North Dakota State Archives for preservation. These records may contain proclamations, speeches, correspondence, executive orders, and files related to legislation. The North Dakota State Archives contains records from the governors of Dakota Territory through Governor Jack Dalrymple, who left office in December 2016.

As discussed in my last blog, What in the World is an Electronic Records Archivist?, management of digital records and their preservation is an extremely important and pressing issue in the world of archives. Archivists have been preserving paper and other resources for hundreds of years. Now records continue to shift to digital formats, and the shift is happening fast! This shift can be seen in the types of files in the different governors’ records.

From the territorial days and through the end of Governor Allen I. Olson’s time in office (1981-1984), all records were paper. We saw digital records begin with Governor George Sinner’s time in office (1985-1992), although it was actually only just a few floppy disks. The increase of digital files continues to be seen through the records of governors Ed Schafer (1992-2000), John Hoeven (2000-2010), and Jack Dalrymple (2010-2016).  As digital files increase, paper files decrease. Just 40 years ago, when Governor Art Link’s (1973-1981) records were transferred from his office to the State Archives, we received 334 cubic feet of paper records. Last year, when we received Governor Jack Dalrymple’s records, we only received 58 cubic feet of paper; however, we received thousands of digital files! With this trend, we might have more empty shelf space in our storage areas, but our digital shelf space will continue to fill and grow rapidly.

Researchers are able to visit the Orin G. Libby Reading Room at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum to study the paper records, and in the future, online access will available for an increasing number of digital files.

These records are great for researching the state’s leaders and government happenings, but they also provide an interesting history of various technologies used throughout Dakota Territory and North Dakota.  The following images illustrate this well:

This first image is a Thanksgiving proclamation by Newton Edmonds, second governor of Dakota Territory, written in a beautiful, swooping handwriting.

Thanksgiving Proclamation by Newton Edmonds

Newton Edmonds 1864 Thanksgiving proclamation (SHSND SA 30076)

The second image is a Thanksgiving proclamation made by Governor Jack Dalrymple in 2013. This proclamation was created digitally, printed, signed by the Governor and Secretary of State, scanned, and then transferred to the North Dakota State Archives.

Thanksgiving Proclamation by Jack Dalrymple

Jack Dalrymple 2013 Thanksgiving proclamation (SHSND SA 32346)

My, how times have changed! Although I love looking at the beautiful handwriting, I can’t imagine living without a computer to type documents! It will be interesting to see how technology continues to change and what steps archivists will take to ensure the records are available for future generations.

What in the World Is an Electronic Records Archivist?

Think about how much you use your cell phone or computer in a day. You create countless photographs, text messages, emails, Facebook posts, blog posts, tweets—and the list goes on. In the past, these types of daily documentation, such as letters, photographs, journaling, and commentary on daily life, were harder to create, and more permanent. Do you have a plan of what to do with the huge amount of historic data you create every day? Or will it just be lost with time? Are we entering an age where our future generations will not be able to research our current lifestyle, culture, or heritage?

Currently, archivists are trying to establish standards, policies, and methods to preserve the massive amount of data the world is rapidly creating. Not only is the amount of data an issue; so is the pace at which technologies are changing. At the North Dakota State Archives, we are working to preserve digital records created by state agencies, organizations, and private donors.

That’s where I come in!

Lindsay Schott

This is me, Lindsay Schott, electronic records archivist for the state of North Dakota!

As the first electronic records archivist for the state of North Dakota, I am responsible for ensuring that digital files created by state agencies are preserved and accessible for future generations.

I am currently working on creating policies and procedures to establish a digital archives repository. This repository will allow me to track file formats and add descriptive terms to the files.  These descriptive terms, will allow researchers to search and access digital records online through a portal in the future.

Media varieties

This is a glimpse of just a few varieties of the external media on which state agency electronic records are stored.

The State Archives has accepted manuscripts and other types of records since its inception. With the advent of new technology, that includes electronic files. That’s what I work with, the “new” technology, whether it is a file saved on some object from the 1970s or ’80s, or whether it is a current mp3 or pdf file. On any given day, I could find a collection housed in the State Archives that contains 3.5-inch diskettes, 5.25-inch floppy disks, CDs, DVDs, or other types of external storage devices. Or, a state agency can contact me with digital files that have reached their retention period, and we work to transfer these files through a file sharing site. These collections contain the digital photographs, documents, videos, audio files, websites, emails, and more created by North Dakota state agencies. As you can imagine, many different file types have been used when creating electronic records. Just think about the all of the different programs and versions of software that have been around since the beginning of computers. For instance, Apple generally updates the iOS on iPhones a few times in one year. Imagine having to track these updates for all types of records! It is my job to ingest these electronic records into a trusted digital repository.

Progression of records

Progression of records throughout the history of North Dakota. Left: Record books in storage at the Stark County Courthouse in Dickinson, 1937 (30573-00119, detail). Middle: Box of floppy disks waiting to be ingested into the digital repository. These were created in the early 1990s. Right: A screenshot of digital records in the digital repository. Now, instead of taking up shelf space, records take up lots of server space! Click image for larger view.

Keeping up with technology is just one of the many obstacles that electronic records archivists face. Format and media obsolescence are two very large hurdles standing in the way of digital record preservation. As the technologies change, file formats, storage media, software, and hardware go out of style and use. Electronic record archivists must make sure that these obsolescent file formats are migrated to a file format that is better suited for preservation. That is one of the reasons why we have many older computers around the State Archives. In order to ensure we can get the files off old storage devices, we need to have these older computers, because they can read older storage media. For example, computers sold today don’t have a 5.25-inch floppy drive. So, we have maintained several computer towers from the time when these floppy drives were a necessity. In the future, we may have to keep several towers that have USB ports to make certain we have the capability to read USB drives.

Old computers

These are a few of the old computers we have at the State Archives to ensure we are able to access old external media.

It is crucial that electronic records archivists take action immediately. If we don’t, the information found in the files may not remain available due to the rapid, changing pace of technology.