Presidential librarians prep for IT challenges

Computer World –

Now that Bill Clinton has left the Oval Office, aides say he will be spending a lot of his time on his presidential library. Yet a big part of the challenge belongs not to him but to the IT staff that must grapple with a volume of work and incompatible IT systems that will make it nearly impossible to fully catalog his administration.

Skip Rutherford, president of the President Clinton Library Foundation, opened the door this week to his operation's temporary location in Little Rock, Ark. However, the initial batch of hard-copy materials available to the public will barely be the tip of the massive information iceberg from the two-term Clinton administration.

Drowning in Data

Presidential librarians face the following problems:

* Hundreds of data formats and systems

* Technical talent is needed to keep old systems working

* Millions of documents need to be turned into electronic files

* Millions of e-mails need to be indexed in context

"We have 40 million e-mail messages alone," Rutherford said. "The sheer volume of information from the Clinton administration is partly due to technology advancements."

Quantity of information is only the beginning of the problems for Clinton librarians, said Michelle Cobb, an analyst at the College Park, Md.-based Office of Presidential Libraries, which is part of the National Archives. She said more than 100 independent systems in the executive branch must be migrated to a common platform.

Compounding the migration problem is that the systems themselves become part of the presidential record, according to Jenny Sternaman, an archivist at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif.

To comply with the mandate of the National Archives to retain the records of its government, Sternaman and other archivists need to employ individuals who can run outdated technology. But archivists also need to move data from long-retired systems to a modern, readable common format.

Currently, the idea is to make all the information available via a browser. But it's not as simple as scanning in documents or putting a Web front end on mainframe data, archivists said. It's about providing context, which can be particularly daunting for electronic-based documents.

"It's an amazing prospect to make sure all the messages are accounted for and that the context is maintained," Cobb said.

She said some online files use graphical information systems. Portions of these GIS files are frequently printed or e-mailed and dispersed among users. Tying these partial documents together in the context of the entire GIS file is a complex, time-consuming task.

Even if context can be realized, the indexing or archiving of it seldom occurs without the help of requests made under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), said Sternaman. She said her crew is able to handle only searches based on FOIA requests. As a result, she estimated that a mere 15% of the library has been indexed after 12 years.

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