Robert Horton - Digital Preservation (Library of Congress)

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Robert HortonMinnesota State Archivist Bob Horton had his first significant electronic records experience in the early 1990s at boot camp. Camp Pitt was a workshop -– sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission -– on electronic records. Horton credits Camp Pitt for opening his eyes to the possibilities of technology, electronic recordkeeping and access to archival information. After that experience, Horton steered his archival work in the direction of public access to electronic records.

The popularity of the Internet was just beginning to spread at that time and not long after Camp Pitt, Horton – who was then with the Indiana State Archives – began building gopher (external link)- and browser-based websites. "What we were discovering and enjoying about the technology was that it was a chance to deliver material to our users and provide services to our partners in ways that were just absolutely incredible," Horton said.

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He learned from both his successes and failures. One project Horton dubbed an interesting early success was a database he helped create that listed Indiana's registered sex offenders. When Indiana passed a law requiring sex offenders to register, Horton and his colleagues understood that it would be a logistical nightmare for law enforcement agencies to coordinate all their paper-based information. Instead, the archives worked with Indiana's CIO and criminal justice agencies to put the information into a searchable database.

A project that Horton dubbed an interesting failure was when the archives created a database of  institutional records. These records were publicly available and he saw them as being particularly interesting to family historians. "If you're a citizen who leads an ordinary blameless life, you don't leave much of a documentary trail aside from a birth record or death record," Horton said. "But if you get involved in a state institution you leave behind tremendous files of records."

Family historians loved the wealth of additional information. The archives developed a searchable database of hospital records. They were sensitive to patient privacy though, and they withheld personal identification information. The day the archives put the site online, the governor's office called and said that they didn't want potentially sensitive information – such as who had been in a mental institution – presented in such a quickly searchable way.

"We learned that technology was not just a matter of databases, applications and programming," said Horton. "If we were going to use technology, we had to look at it in a wider cultural context of laws and public opinion and promotion and education. Many people thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread, but we had a whole different audience out there who thought it was a gross invasion of privacy."

It was a paradox. Before the Internet, archival research was a time-consuming, tedious chore. You had to travel to the building where the archives were stored, look something up and wait for the records to be pulled and physically delivered to you. But even though Internet technology reduced research time from hours to seconds, it raised unpredictable privacy issues.

As a result, archives have to ponder various aspects of electronic records delivery to reduce privacy concerns.   Horton said, "Once you put something online it's going to affect a variety of people beyond your audience."

Horton went on to work with the Minnesota Historical Society in 1997 where he soon encountered one of the largest projects he was ever involved with: the Tobacco Document Library. The state of Minnesota won a lawsuit against the major tobacco companies and as part of its settlement the tobacco companies agreed to help establish a repository containing all of the documentation produced during the litigation, over 27 million pages of internal tobacco industry documents involving research, lobbying, internal deliberations, advertisement and more. "The most complete and unedited record of corporate activity that ever was," said Horton. "Tobacco companies had spent huge sums fighting the lawsuit and they didn't want people to see these records."

The MHS led a project to explore how best to make the materials in the repository available to the public. The documents were a challenge: there was no provenance, no original order, no organization…just papers pulled out of boxes. The archivists, being archivists, wanted to classify it all and organize it neatly.

However, the users reacted quickly. "It was interesting the way folks perceived us as just one more obstacle in their efficient use of this content," said Horton. "They told us, 'Don't do any of your fancy archival metadata stuff.'" The users pushed hard for immediate online access to the documents just as they were.

The University of California at San Francisco digitized the documents and got the database online. Today the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library (external link) stands as a vital source of tobacco-industry research. Archivists continue to add to the repository as further litigation produces more documentation. The total is now over 50 million documents.

Horton pays attention to what researchers say is useful to them, even if their interests challenge his training as an archivist. He values full-text search and respects user tagging and organization, and other so-called Web 2.0 methods.

Horton brings this open-minded approach to the NDIIPP-funded State Government Digital Information project. Though the MHS has developed its own sophisticated digital archiving methods over the years, they acknowledge that each state has different needs.

"When we first got the NDIIPP grant, we visited each state – their legislative staff, their archival staff, their IT staff – and in every case they pointed out that their needs were different," said Horton. Everyone had different resources, different missions, different statutes. So the MHS came up with the approach of appropriate practices, not foisting on everyone what it deems to be best practices. The MHS helps states articulate their individual needs. It offers the states a variety of tools from which they can select the best tools for themselves.

The MHS is also trying to foster collaborations within and among states, recognizing that sharing resources will allow people to do things that they otherwise could not.

Horton advocates paying attention to local knowledge and public response, trusting the end users instead of dictating to them. "It's the only practical way forward," Horton said. "We have to be useful and take into account what people do with the collections and how they want to work with it. Otherwise we're not serving any social purpose."