A Pioneer in Electronic Records

October is American Archives Month! We’re celebrating the work of archivists and the importance of archives with a series of blog posts about the electronic records.

Census Bureau Punch Card Operators, March, 1940. (National Archives Identifier 6200858)

The National Archives has long been tackling the issue of electronic records.

In the early 1960s, while looking at some Census Bureau magnetic tapes, Meyer Fishbein, then a member of the Office of Records Appraisal at the National Archives and Records Service (NARS), asked what they did with them.

The Bureau promptly replied they erased the tapes and reused them (thus saving $12.50 per tape—a hefty sum in those days). They didn’t see it as an issue because they hadn’t been saving their punch cards and this, in their minds, was the same thing.

Fishbein immediately recognized the need to retain the tapes and similar machine readable mediums. He asked the Bureau to hold off on erasing the tapes until he could provide further guidance.

He went back to the Archives and told them we have a problem.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Department of Energy) bubble chamber measuring projector which reduced bubble chamber film to machine-readable data, January 18, 1960. (National Archives Identifier 22123348)

The problem of machine-readable records—what we now call electronic records—was that they were proliferating all over the Federal government. The agencies were all creating them and the Archives needed to figure out a way to ensure all this data was being maintained.

The Bureau of the Budget—the predecessor to the Office of Management and Budget—was also looking at the issue. As economists, they had a vested interest in keeping and accessing the data that the government was creating. They hoped Congress would pass legislation to create a large government agency to deal exclusively with electronic records—something akin to a national data center.

In his oral history Fishbein recalled a subcommittee hearing on the creation of such an electronic records agency. In it, while trying to understand what gets saved, the chairman asked if he were to make a reservation, say for a hotel in Chicago, would it be saved electronically?

Fishbein replied yes.

The chairman further asked what if his secretary made the same reservation and ended up in the same hotel room—would that be on saved on the record?

Meyer Fishbein, March, 1972. (National Archives Identifier 35809924)

Fishbein replied yes again.

Congress decided not to act on the data center (the hearings were called “The Computer and Invasion of Privacy” so they obviously were not receptive to the idea in the first place).

The National Archives then decided that they already had authority to collect and retain these tapes and other machine-readable mediums because, by law, they were allowed to accession records regardless of media. NARS decided to look into creating a machine-readable records program.

In 1966, Archivist of the United States, Robert H. Bahmer, appointed a committee to draw up a report for accessioning and managing machine-readable archives.

In 1968, after the committee’s report was finalized, Everett O. Alldredge was detailed to the Archivist’s office to implement the committee’s recommendations. Fishbein was also moved to the position of acting Director of the Records Appraisal Division to help identify and appraise machine-readable records of archival value.

Everett O. Alldredge speaking at the Conference on the National Archives and Statistical Research, 1968. (National Archives Identifier 23855555)

That same year NARS established a Data Archives Staff to survey and inventory the government’s tape libraries and to identify tapes with long-term value.

Two years later the National Archives accessioned its first electronic records.

In hindsight, the National Archives attempt to take the lead on this issue was extremely brave given the expense and complexity, and our limited resources and expertise. It was hard enough to save and preserve the new mediums let alone to devise ways for researchers to access the information stored on those mediums for years to come.

While the volume and complexity of electronic records has grown exponentially since our first electronic accession, the mission of the National Archives remains the same–to preserve the records of government and make them available.

Stay tuned for more developments in electronic records at the National Archives.

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