NDSR Tour of the Massachusetts State Archives

This week, my fellow residents, our hosts, and members of the NDSR community visited the Massachusetts State Archives. Located on Columbia Point, the Archives house, preserve, and make accessible public records of the Massachusetts government. massachusetts_state_archives_50_timeline_ca_jul14_800x564We talked with the Electronic Records Archivist Veronica Martzahl about digital preservation efforts and learned about the Archives’ amazing collections from Executive Director Michael Comeau. Thanks to you both and the Archives staff for having us!

Veronica shared what led to the creation of her role at the Archives and informed us about some digital preservation initiatives that are underway. When previous Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney left office, his hard drives were swept clean and no electronic records were transferred to the Archives. This alone would be an issue in terms of government transparency and the importance of leaving a historical record (and definitely not in line with best archival practice!), but it became even more critical when Romney ran for president. This provided the impetus for the Archives to develop a digital preservation program that would ensure better procedures moving forward.

For about two years now, Veronica has been working tirelessly to implement a new digital repository, which included testing, cost analysis, and training, and has had her hands in several other projects as well. In the end, the Archives chose the Preservica Standard Edition for their digital collections. The big take-away from this is that the process was long and challenging. Dealing with factors such as IT constraints, budgeting, and the usual politics involved in government work presented some hurdles, but that there was strong institutional commitment for the project, which is such an important factor in digital preservation. This taught us much about the reality of selecting systems for your institution– something I’m sure all of the residents will deal with sooner or later! We were all very impressed with the amount of work Veronica has achieved, and can see the long-term positive impact that this repository will have for the Archives. 

As the resident at the State Library, I was particularly interested in what we can learn from another government agency working to preserve digital government information. Veronica was kind enough to spend some time with me last October discussing the current state of digital preservation at the State Archives, and I was excited to expand on that today, plus to hear updates since we last talked. One question I often get is, why don’t the library and archives collaborate on digital preservation? In a case of maddening bureaucracy, the Library reports to the Department of Administration and Finance, while the Archives report to the Secretary of the Commonwealth. This fracture often results in some confusion, but the staff at both institutions are very supportive (we often refer users to the Archives for research, and vice versa). I hope the Archives and Library staff can continue to find opportunities for collaboration, especially in regards to digital preservation.

After Veronica caught us up on the digital projects, Michael then provided us with some interesting background information about the Archives, it’s vast collection, and some detail about their emergency preparedness plan. Columbia Point, where the Archives are located, is very close to the water, and susceptible to some serious damage from natural disasters. e96cbf7d40f573aae8d8499bc743ff3eMichael explained that that is partially why the building is designed to be so strong– it has to withhold some intense weather! 

We were able to see the original versions of some founding documents in Massachusetts history and the Bill of Rights, on display in the Commonwealth Museum. As a history nerd, I was pretty jazzed to be in the same room as these materials. Hearing Michael discuss the process of designing a proper space to house these documents was equally interesting. They worked with a scientist at MIT to create a home for these materials, thus protecting their longevity. The encasements they designed have allowed these crucial pieces of history to be well preserved. Though our focus may be on digital preservation, it was a great chance for us to hear a case study around preservation of print materials and to consider how necessary preservation is, regardless of format.

This month we also get to hear about the Digital Commonwealth, get a demonstration in the FITS tool from Harvard, and attend an UnConference at the JFK Library. Looking forward to it!

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