‘We all want to do this faster:’ Library of Virginia needs money to speed production of governors’ records

By: - May 21, 2019 9:50 pm

The Library of Virginia in downtown Richmond is responsible for archiving gubernatorial records and correspondence. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Susan Gray Eakin Page, a digital archives coordinator at the Library of Virginia, considers the painstaking process of making former Gov. Tim Kaine’s records accessible online “one of her babies.”

Kaine turned over more than 900 boxes of paper records and almost two million electronic records when he left office in 2010.

Library staff began reviewing emails and files and adding it to an online database for the public to access. When the first round of emails — 66,000 — went online in 2014, staff celebrated the achievement, saying Virginia was one of the first state libraries in the country to do something like that.

“But we found out not everyone found our baby as cute as we did,” Page said.

The Library of Virginia has slowly processed electronic gubernatorial records with reduced state money for eight years. The library is primarily funded by the state, but the agency has lost more than 60 positions in the last decade because of decreases in funding, Librarian of Virginia Sandra Treadway said. The Library of Virginia currently gets $6.4 million a year from the state and operates a foundation to collect and manage donations

Lawmakers have put pressure on the library to work faster, but have shied away from giving the library funding it would need to do so. It’s not required for the Library of Virginia to process and post searchable gubernatorial records online; just to catalog and make them available to the public when the administration leaves office, which doesn’t necessarily mean any sort of searchable database.

The library said the records are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act while they are being cataloged, effectively making them off limits as the staff work through the backlog.

Right now, the work of processing and adding electronic gubernatorial files to a digital archive is funded by federal grants and donated methods, like artificial intelligence, Page said during a presentation at the Library of Virginia Tuesday.

A handful of staff members handle the entire project, Treadway said. Four archivists work on the effort part of the time and one person is dedicated fully to the project.

With more funding, archival staff could work at a pace more acceptable to lawmakers, Page said.

“We all want to do this faster, we all want to be done, it’s just not something we can do without resources,” she said. “People deserve access to these records and we want them to have access to these records.”

The library is 62 percent done with 1.5 million Kaine administration emails. After his emails, they still have 1.8 million additional records, like photos, PDFs and word documents to review.

And then, archivists have to get through roughly 10 million files from former Gov. Bob McDonnell and 12 million from former Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

Smartphones and other technology became more common during Kaine’s administration which explains the increase of electronic files between administrations, said Roger Christman, the senior state governors’ records archivist.

Staff is about halfway through Kaine’s 900 boxes of paper records and have scanned some of the documents into the digital archives. That’s taken longer than normal as well, Christman said, because of staff reductions at the library.

Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, and Sen.David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke, carried bills in the General Assembly this past session that would have required the library to make official documents from gubernatorial administrations accessible to the public within a year of receiving them.

The bills died in a conference committee.

“In the era of the internet and with technology being as advanced as it is today, Virginians are still being forced to wait 10 years to have access to official correspondence from past governors’ administrations,” Gilbert said in a statement when he introduced his bill.

“When the Library of Virginia receives the correspondence, it should be put online and available without delay.”

The Library of Virginia said that would require more money for staffing.

Right now, the Library of Virginia manually reviews records for anything that should be redacted or that are not actually public according to the Freedom of Information Act.

After that, staff converts the records to a PDF file and loads them into the library’s digital archives system in a way that allows users to search the files.

The library is trying to make the process faster with help from Waterloo University in Canada, which has an artificial intelligence tool that helps sort through the documents. A human reviews the work.

“While this tool does reduce costs and time associated with redaction of protected information, it does not replace human interaction with records, and it is currently used by the library at a cost of two cents per file,” a fiscal analysis completed for Gilbert and Suetterlein’s legislation said.

In all, the library estimated it would need four new permanent archivists at a cost of $410,000 a year and $642,000 in one-time contractual services “associated with the end
of the current administration in fiscal year 2022.” The four archivists would continue to work for the library to make sure work finished in the timeline laid out in Gilbert and Suetterlein’s proposals.

To comply with the timing requirement, the library estimated it would need another $535,000 in one-time funding to clear the existing backlog of records.

“I wish there was an easy button we could push to put all the emails we received overnight up but unfortunately that doesn’t exist,” Page said. “If we were to do this much much faster, there would be a cost involved.”

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle Hankerson

Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Mechelle was with the Virginia Mercury until January 3rd, 2019.