University President Richard Levin conducts many of his meetings from the same wicker rocking chair that once belonged to Ezra Stiles, who graduated from Yale College in 1746 and went on to serve as Yale’s seventh president.
But just across from that chair in Levin’s Woodbridge Hall office sits an Apple desktop computer from which the president sends and receives e-mail throughout the day. Some of these e-mails are brief missives to colleagues, but others include Levin’s reflections on matters like the expansion of Yale College and the growth of the sciences at the University.
The challenge for Yale’s more than two dozen archivists now is to keep the contents of that computer around for as long as Stiles’ chair has survived. In 2002, the University hired an electronic records archivist, with the hope of preserving important virtual materials today just as paper copies have always been retained.
After all, Levin is not the only person in the University creating digital records. Somebody is always typing at Yale, and whether it’s a student writing a poem for a campus publication or a faculty member preparing minutes of a committee meeting, the written product can be preserved forever — if the materials make their way to the Yale University Library’s Manuscripts & Archives division.
ARCHIVING WITHOUT SECRETARIES
“Doubtless, it’s a problem,” said Judith Schiff, Yale’s chief research archivist, referring to the proliferation of digital records. “How do we decide what’s important now? And how do we get all this content to a manageable and meaningful quantity that we can preserve?”
Throughout Yale’s more than three centuries of existence, Schiff noted, the business of the University was conducted on paper. But save for financial records and receipts, the collection of correspondence and records and memorabilia began in earnest at the start of the 20th century.
In the last century, secretaries and clerks devoted much of their work to the management of documents. These staffers knew to make copies of all outgoing letters and to spend time over the summer weeding through the last year’s correspondence to determine what they could throw away and what needed to be kept, whether in the office or in the archives.
With the advent of contemporary technology, many of those positions no longer exist. Yale faculty and administrators, for the most part, handle their own records.
“People who work at Yale are all smart people, but they’re not all trained to do these kinds of mundane tasks,” said Kevin Glick, Yale’s first and only electronic records archivist. “And it’s not in their job description, either.”
So Glick and a task force of administrators are working to develop standards for the preservation of digital records at Yale. They are attempting to define what exactly a record is in the 21st century and trying to explain to Yale employees that many of the documents they work with on a daily basis are the property of the University, not of the person who wrote the budget report or memorandum or — yes — blog post.
E-mail, Glick explained, presents a particularly complicated challenge for archivists. Even though Glick said Information Technology Services policy at Yale forbids employees from using their Yale e-mail accounts for personal correspondence, few if any adhere to that rule. That usage creates a potential problem of having too many e-mails about lunch dates in Yale’s archives.
“What we really can’t take in is somebody’s inbox,” Glick said. “There’s just no way to tell what’s what.”
To be sure, Yale is not interested in every e-mail sent by everyone with a “yale.edu” domain address. Records created by students and faculty belong to the individuals, unless they are working on University business, like a standing committee that would typically involve an administrator anyway. Records of University administrators do belong to Yale, and the library’s archivists hope to preserve some of them for posterity.
The University, then, hopes its employees are following the advice of countless self-help and efficiency how-to books by setting up folders for their e-mail, Glick said. Staffers can also do future researchers a favor, he said, by flagging important e-mails and deleting inconsequential dispatches.
All these steps are critical if the University is to ultimately compile digital correspondence records. And while much about the collection of e-mail remains unknown, Glick already has some practice under his belt.
A pilot program at Yale — designed to show archivists how they can best go about saving digital records — was recently conducted, collecting the e-mail correspondence of one prominent administrator, Gus Speth, the dean of the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.
Glick said five years’ worth of Speth’s e-mails were gathered, totaling 70 gigabytes of data. The sheer bulk of Speth’s e-mail is a testament to the fact that e-mails today include more than just text; they include attachments and pictures and other large files.
All that data was converted to conventional file formats and transferred to the library’s digital repository, a large group of servers that replicate each other to ensure that no information is lost. Lest a hurricane wipe away the library’s holdings, Glick said, the information is backed up on tape at a far away location.
‘No EASY ANSWERS’
But now that Speth’s e-mail has been collected, what’s next? In some ways, the easiest data to save is also the most important; records of the officers of the University are easy to protect because each officer still has several assistants. Moreover, even though Levin said in an interview that he aims to save paper in his office, much of his e-mail correspondence is printed out and can be filed as paper would be.
The harder challenge will be for Yale to gather all the digital records produced by students and faculty and staff that are important to preserve for posterity. And Yale is not alone. Daniel Linke, Princeton University archivist, said there is no “magic bullet” to electronic records management; Megan Sniffin-Marinoff, Harvard University archivist, said there are “no easy answers.”
Harvard, for its part, is set to release a system this month that will allow it to track changes to the Web sites of its various departments and organizations. This is a priority for Glick, too, he said.
And it is developments like this that give archivists hope. Because if the vast amounts of information being produced today can be saved, and software is developed that allows for easy and effective searching of those documents, more information will be available for the next generation of researchers than ever before.
“Twenty years ago, there was this worry that paper was breaking down over time,” Linke said. “People said we were experiencing a slow fire. Now we’re dealing with fast fires.”