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State of Washington opens digital archives

Washington state and county governments have opened what is the first of its kind facility for electronically preserving state documents.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Records produced by Washington state and county governments went online Monday in what is being called the first of its kind facility for electronically preserving state documents.

Housed in a new building on the Eastern Washington University campus, the $14.5 million Washington State Digital Archives makes records and electronic documents available to anyone with access to a computer, digital archivist Adam Jansen said.

Records previously kept only in county courthouses can now be accessed from home without fear of damage, officials said.

"This type of information is made to be used; you won't hurt it over the Internet," Chelan County Auditor Evelyn Arnold said.  "Any time we can help our public in getting the information that is truly theirs, that is a great step forward."

This is a pet project of Secretary of State Sam Reed, who called the archive "the first state-of-the-art facility like this in the nation."  Vermont Secretary of State Deborah L. Markowitz was in attendance, gathering information before she makes a similar pitch to her state's Legislature next year.

The archive allow users to look up county birth, death and marriage records, military and immigration documents, and other historic records dating to the state's territorial period, Reed said.

Obtaining legal copies
Certified copies of documents can be purchased via a secure channel, eliminating the need to travel to Olympia or county courthouses where the paperwork is filed, Jansen said.

E-mails and other electronic documents from state agencies also will be preserved, State Archivist Jerry Handfield said.

Volunteers have transcribed nearly one million scanned images of historic files over the past two years, Handfield said.

The system is intended to incorporate many kinds of operating platforms to accommodate different systems used by county auditors, Assistant Secretary of State Steve Excell said.

The technology being used was not even developed when construction began on the archive building in 2001, he said.

While great care is taken to preserve historic documents, such as the state Constitution, as many as 50 percent of documents generated electronically today are destroyed because there is no place for them, Reed said.

The archive's digital storage server system, which could eventually grow to 800 terabytes — the equivalent of 200 billion pages of text — was developed by Microsoft and EDS.

(MSNBC is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.)

Unlike paper records that can be changed, damaged or lost in a fire or flood, electronic records will be protected by a digital "lock," redundant copies and offsite backups, Reed said.

"Authentic records build trust in government," Reed said.  "Our mission is to preserve our day-to-day successes and failures for people who will live in this state 100 years from now and beyond."