E-records research in jeopardy

Archivists campaign to keep money flowing to NARA's grant program.

Archivists and historians nationwide are mounting a major campaign to stop the dismantling of the National Archives and Records Administration's grants program, which is responsible for electronic records research.

Office of Management and Budget officials slashed all funding for the 70-year-old National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) in President Bush's proposed fiscal 2006 budget. In addition to e-records research, NHPRC funds historical projects.

NARA Archivist Allen Weinstein, a historian, called the dismantling of the program an unfortunate mistake when he was sworn in to office earlier this month. "Most respectfully, I believe that sober second thought will lead the OMB, the White House and the bipartisan leadership of Congress to reconsider this action and restore this vital program," Weinstein said in his speech.

Before the creation of the Electronic Records Archives (ERA), NARA's current digital preservation initiative, the commission was responsible for e-records research. Nearly 25 years ago, commission officials gave the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the State Historical Society of Wisconsin money to implement machine-readable records archives. These were among the first grants awarded to states and universities for e-records.

Grants already awarded will not be affected, but proposals currently in the pipeline could be denied. For example, Caryn Wojcik, government records archivist for the Michigan Historical Center, is drafting a proposal to build a cooperative digital archive for all states and archival repositories.

"We're going ahead with writing the grant proposal in the hopes of the funding being restored," she said. "If the NHPRC isn't [reinstituted], clearly the project won't happen. There aren't a whole lot of institutions out there that are interested in funding projects like this." The historical center is one of many institutions writing letters to Congress, urging lawmakers to restore the commission's funding.

Recently, NHPRC officials awarded $242,500 to the Michigan Historical Center, the San Diego Supercomputer Center and several other institutions for the Persistent Archive Testbed, a data grid that tests the speed and storage limits of e-records preservation.

Randall Jimerson, president of the American Archivists Society, said the decision to cut staffing for the program could jeopardize e-records training for all archivists.

"It would be difficult to restart the program at a later time ... if the administration infrastructure is threatened," he said.

Much of the research for ERA came from NHPRC's grants to other organizations. The budget cuts would curtail development of best practices at universities, state archives and other archival institutions, Jimerson said.

Some experts say the program was eliminated because of its small size. From June 1979 through November 2002, NHPRC has funded about 70 e-records projects and typically awarded less than $300,000 per year for those projects.

But NHPRC's e-records grants are often matched dollar for dollar — or more — by the private sector, said Bruce Craig, director of the National Coalition for History. "Although the program is small, it has an enormous impact on what goes into history," he said.

Craig said the proposal to entirely cut the program seems odd, when President Bush signed legislation last year reauthorizing the commission to get $10 million a year for another four years. And last month, the Bush administration appointed two new representatives to serve on the commission.

Craig said he thinks OMB officials have targeted NHPRC for a while. They declined to comment on the budget cuts.

Craig said he hopes administration officials restore federal funding for e-records soon. "Either word has got to come down from the White House or Congress itself to save the program," he said. "The reality is that the president does not know about the program in any way, shape or form. Like much of the American public, ... the president is clearly interested in history. He reads history books."

Funding e-record research projects

President Bush's proposed fiscal 2006 budget drops a National Archives and Records Administration program that has funded electronic records research nationwide and laid the groundwork for the Electronic Records Archives. For more than 40 years, National Historical Publications and Records Commission officials have granted universities and states federal funding to preserve documentary sources, including the definitive editions of the writings of the nation's founding fathers.

Here are the most recent e-records projects and their funding.

  • Officials at the Research Foundation of the State University of New York are preserving Authentic Non-textual and Interactive Records for up to $256,997.
  • Officials at Georgia's Office of the Secretary of State's Georgia Archives are preserving that state's Historical Data: A Case Study for up $187,581.
  • Officials at the Minnesota Historical Society are preserving the Records of the E-Legislature for up to $264,887.

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