My letter to Terry McAuliffe and Dietra Trent about the importance of the Library of Virginia

Below is a letter that I wrote to Governor Terry McAuliffe and Secretary of Education Dietra Trent about the proposed layoffs at the Library of Virginia. 26 state employees have to be laid off state-wide, and out of that number 15 are currently proposed to come from the Library of Virginia. It is unfair, inequitable, and devastating to an agency that has born more that its share of layoffs going back to 2002.

I urge you to contact the Governor and the Secretary using the form on their website and tell them why you support the Library of Virginia and why these cuts are completely unfair.

Dear Governor McAuliffe and Secretary Trent,

I strongly urge you to reconsider the layoffs of 15 people from the Library of Virginia out of a statewide layoff total of 26. The first issues is the issue of fairness. No one wants layoffs to come from their agency, but the fact that the Library of Virginia is bearing over half of the layoffs for their entire state government simply isn’t fair. Spreading them across the Executive Branch helps minimize the impact to any one agency; if things are allowed to stand as they are, the programs and services of the Library will be gutted.

But secondly, more importantly, is a message that you may not have heard much, but that is very, very true: the Library is a critical and key part of state government and our Commonwealth and needs to be protected and grown. The Library performs critical services for the Commonwealth, such as records management, the preservation of Virginia’s historical record, and educating students and the public about the importance of primary sources, among many other things.

The records retention schedules created by the records analysis team and the records collected, preserved, and made available by the archivists at the Library of Virginia are the cornerstone of open and transparent government here in the Commonwealth. The records at the Library have been used in court cases, by members of the media, by citizens of the Commonwealth, and by members of your own administration to review the day-to-day actions of the government. The Library is also one of the first in the country to publish, en masse, the emails of a gubernatorial administration with the emails of Tim Kaine now available online. In a day where emails are constantly in the news, this project shows what an archive can do. All of this is threatened by these potential layoffs.

This last point, about the emails of Governor Tim Kaine, also illuminates a larger point. With the records of state and local government becoming primarily digital, rather than paper, the human and resource cost for appropriate records retention, long-term archival storage, and processes to make these documents available just like paper records is skyrocketing. We need more records managers and archivists to deal with this new future, not less, and the Library needs more resources to make sure that there isn’t a massive gap in the historical record because we aren’t able to deal with digital archives.

The Library also does dozens of educational programs every year, ranging from teaching school-aged children about the importance of primary sources, to genealogy workshops to Virginia residents of all ages, to book talks given by important authors from Virginia and beyond. These include events requested by members of the General Assembly during the legislative session, which is a perk that the members get to give their constituents who are able to come to Richmond. This is an important educational experience for Virginians, both young and old, to learn about primary sources.

If these cuts are allowed to take place in the way they are currently constituted, you will be doing irreparable harm to the historical record of Virginia, the openness of government in Virginia, and the education of the citizens of Virginia. I urge you to spare the Library of Virginia, which has already been hit with devastating layoffs in every round since 2002, and spread these layoffs more equitably across state government agencies. I look forward to your response.

Sincerely,
Benjamin Bromley

Does it matter if libraries and archives aren’t involved with open government data repositories?

Accessing information about government no longer has to mean going to a building and requesting permission to sift through paper documents. It doesn’t even have to mean writing a letter, filling out a complex form, or trying to figure out who to contact about public records or how to access records in the first place.

Technology has enabled faster, more efficient and more user-friendly access to government information — to public information — and governments across the country are increasingly embracing this opportunity in their policies and practices. One way to do this is to adopt open data policies that build on precedent set by existing policy like public records laws.

-From the Sunlight Foundation’s post “Open data is the next iteration of public records.”

Government transparency is a good thing, and so I am happy to see the proliferation of open government data repositories, like data.gov and its equivalents at the state level. One worry, however, that I have is that it does not seem that libraries and archives are involved in creating, managing, disseminating, or describing this information. Most of these projects come out of such locations as state’s IT agency, or the budget department, or some other administrative actor. I will admit that I have not looked at all of the open government data repositories out there, so there may be libraries and archives involved in some of them. But this is the kind of data that has traditionally been provided by libraries and archives, and now it is being taken out of our hands and being served elsewhere.

When I initially sat down to write this post, I was ready to be full of angst about the state of archives in our society, and that our roles were being taken over by IT departments and computers. But open data repositories generally deal with data that is machine-readable, and usually machine-created. On the other hand, we archivists have an explosion of digital data to deal with, the natural extension of the explosion of paper records during the middle of the 20th century; emails, word documents, excel spreadsheets, websites, blogs, Twitter accounts, Facebook, and more still defy easy manipulation by computers and easy aggregation into data repositories. One could argue that by taking the burden of providing these datasets that are easily described in the aggregate, archivists are thereby allowed to concentrate on records that cannot be described so easily or automatically. In addition, many of these datasets are provided in machine-readable format, which obviously leads itself to be described by machines rather than archivists. One of the things at which archivists excel at is taking a large mass of data that is difficult or impossible to describe automatically and providing access to it to researchers. But there is always an existential pang in my soul when a record previously provided by archives moves elsewhere.

So what do you think? Does it matter? Am I being an open government hipster, saying that libraries and archives were into open data before it was cool? Or should we cheer the move of these types of records to a different sector?