“Wear Sunscreen”

Or the Documentary Record in the Electronic Environment

Good afternoon and Happy Graduation Day! Had I been in Austin earlier this afternoon, I would have been onstage reading the names of the fall graduates of our School of Information and listening to the commencement speaker presenting a few wellchosen words to express some deep truths intended to focus and guide the graduates in shaping a game plan as they go into the world and the future—a goal I rather share today with our commencement speaker. In preparing my talk, then, naturally, I turned to my archives and one of the most widely circulated commencement speeches of recent years. You probably saw it six years ago in August 1997, as it was spread far and wide over the Internet.

“Wear sunscreen,” Kurt Vonnegut began, as he addressed the May 1997 graduating class of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience” (Austin American-Statesman, August 7, 1997). He went on in maybe 1,000 words to offer thoughts of inspiration, insight, and humor that made the talk one to be not just remembered but shared.

It was a brilliant speech. When Vonnegut’s wife found a copy in her email inbox and read it for the first time, she was impressed with her husband’s handiwork that she had not seen before and fired off copies to their children and friends. When Vonnegut saw it, he swelled with anger. “How can I know whether I’m being kidded or not, or lied to?” he fumed. You see, he was not the author of the essay and had been nowhere near MIT on graduation day. Kofi Annan delivered the commencement speech at MIT that year. The Vonnegut address, since labeled as “one of the best speeches Kurt Vonnegut didn’t write,” was penned by columnist Mary Schmich and published in the Chicago Tribune two months before it began flying around the world on the Internet.

So, I wondered, were Mary Schmich to write the talk David Gracy is scheduled to give today, how might she begin? “Be careful,” I think she might begin. “If I could offer you only one tip regarding the documentary record in the electronic age, ‘be careful’ would be it—be careful that you have what you think you have. That is, be careful that what you see on the screen is what it is purported to be, and be careful that what you want to preserve in the digital environment is set up so as to give you the prospect of achieving that end. The rest of my advice is simply ‘have a good time,’ because the electronic environment creates kinds of records (by which I mean funds of records information) unknown heretofore, provides access and the potential for access to information in records unimagined heretofore, and appears to have its share of interesting, remarkable, unintended consequences that stand to enrich us all.”

Archives—What They Are and Why They Matter

Records information—that is the heart of the matter. Records information is a particular kind of information—namely, information created in the conduct of the affairs of a person’s or an organization’s life for the purpose of carrying out and documenting those affairs. And it is precisely that fact—that records information is part of the process of conducting business, public and personal—which makes records information unique. To put a face on it, think of documents that you create in the conduct of your affairs for the purpose of carrying out and documenting those affairs. You write letters or e-mail messages to cause someone to know or to do something. You respond accordingly to letters or e-mail messages sent to you. You sign contracts, take photographs, prepare income tax returns, and on and on—all for the purpose of moving your life forward. So records information is a very particular kind of information—ubiquitous and voluminous beyond imagination, to be sure, but particular because it is part of the events that it documents. The job of the archivist, as of anyone responsible for records, is to maintain records in such a way that their authenticity, as part of the events that brought them into existence and of which they were a part, is inviolate.

Archives are that portion of records information determined to have enduring value. Archivists are used to having the concept of “enduring value” equated with “old.” But in all my forty-four years in archives, in all my nine years as State Archivist of Texas, I never had anyone come into my archival repository and ask for “old.” In fact, I know of such an event happening only once. The archivist of the University of Georgia, Gilbert Head, told me that one day a person walked into the archives, came up to him, and said in virtually these words: “I want to see the oldest thing you have here. I don’t care what it is. I just want to see something really old.” Obligingly Gilbert went into the stacks, brought out a document several centuries old, and laid it on the table before the visitor. The visitor bent over the document, studied it closely for a few minutes, then raised up, looked Gilbert in the eye, and said: “Umm, ump! that’s old!” He walked out satisfied.

The fact is that people come to archives, and people keep records of enduring value, because of the information in the record, age—the date the record was created—being simply part of the information the archives visitor is seeking. In other words, the value in archives is not age as such, but the fact that the information was created in the conduct of affairs and remains the truest and most faithful record we have of those affairs, no matter when those affairs took place.

The job—the most important job—of the archivist, then, is to maintain records, both hard-copy and electronic, as closely as possible in relation to the affairs of which they were a part. When we do that, we get these results:

• valid but compressed experience that can reduce the real time any user of the archives has to spend accumulating the same experience;
• the solid basis of history;
• the corporate memory that gives context of both time and experience to decision making;
• shared experience over time, which is the basis of community; and evidence of thoughts and actions.

Archives in the Electronic World

Within this truth, archives in the electronic environment have a distinctiveness all their own. Most obviously, they fall into two principal categories, which have significant similarities but also significant differences. One category is digitized copies of hard-copy originals. Digital images of photographs, of advertising, of architectural drawings, of broadsides, of maps, of film, and simply of handwritten letters are found on the Web pages of archival repositories. One of the largest bodies of these is the nearly 800,000 images of the papers of the late senator John Heinz III that are available on-line from Carnegie-Mellon University. The other category is documents that are born digital. These range from simple email messages to compound documents that combine information entities never before combinable—text, sound, and image, both still and
moving. Further, these documents can contain links to other documents and sites, which means that in such instances, these documents are not complete in themselves. An e-mail message containing a link and an attachment is a good example. A printout of the e-mail message, which cannot reproduce the link feature and which does not allow manipulation
of the attachment, simply is not the same as the e-mail message in electronic form.

This has led to thinking about and defining “the record” differently. Whereas records were long spoken of as particularly physical things (the 1943 Records Disposal Act of the United States defined archives as “all books, papers, maps, photographs, or other documentary materials, regardless of physical form or format”), in the electronic environment,
lacking a physical existence, records are conceived of in terms of the transaction of which they are a part and which they document (documents made, received, or used in the conduct of public business).

It has led also to identifying and confronting a variety of issues—problems and benefits—related specifically to digitized documents and electronic records.


The greatest of the problems, especially for electronic records that have no hard-copy original, is, as Kurt Vonnegut well knows, authenticity. Because it is so easy to manufacture a document that purports to be something that it is not, and so easy to alter a document to make it into something that it is not, ensuring that the document one views on the screen is indeed the document the viewer believes it to be must be problem number one. When a hard-copy document is called into question, no copy, electronic or otherwise, can replace the hard-copy original. If one is studying the de la Peña manuscript to determine whether it is what it is purported to be—namely, Mexican officer Enrique de la Peña’s account of the Texas Campaign of 1836—only the original document will do. Thus, only the original permitted my team and me to scrutinize the characteristics of the handwriting, to analyze the ink, to inspect the paper, to study the interaction of the ink on the paper, and to look closely at the various signs of age, including spots, holes, and water tide lines.

From a variety of perspectives, a second problem of virtually equal magnitude to authenticity is maintaining access to and the functionality of an electronic document that one wants to keep long-term. I say “longterm” because, in the computer world, “archiving” something means saving it for perhaps a decade—three generations of hardware and software upgrades until, if action has not been taken to maintain access to the document, it is no longer accessible. I wrote my biography of Moses Austin on a machine that used a CPM operating system and five-inch floppy disks, both of which are now long obsolete. In other words, I have the disks, but they are completely useless to me. Course notes that I wrote on the machine and have migrated forward as I have acquired new machines still can be opened, but the functionality has been lost. To continue to work with the notes on my current machine, I have to manually move the words into the current word processing program.

How do we keep long-term both text and functionality? Some suggest that the solution will be migration—that is, moving documents into each successive generation of software and reproducing the functionality. Others suggest emulation, which is creating a program to mimic the environment in which a document was produced. The bottom line is that the solution has not yet been found, and this problem is growing every day as the quantity of electronic records explodes. And magnifying the problem is the curious fact that to maintain access to records in the electronic environment as of now, we must move them forward with each platform upgrade, meaning that copious amounts of human intervention are necessary to manage records in the electronic environment, just as in the hard-copy environment. In other words, achieving preservation in the electronic environment requires no less work than in the hard-copy environment, but the certainty of success is far less.

Third, in the electronic world, we have a much more difficult time simply defining what “the record” is. Looked at from the hard-copy environment, one could argue that the document on the screen is the record. Viewed as a unit of information, the piece with the links embedded in it (that is, the piece and all of the information in each of the links, including that also in links in the item being linked to) is the document when considered by content. Considered as an electronic entity, the record can be argued to be the metadata that defines the document and all of its parts.

An archivist and a user of archives could well argue that the fourth great problem is both the ease with which an individual can delete documents and the difficulty of working through the mass of documentation where archival appraisal has not occurred. On the one hand, the audit trail of development of policy and of changes in things is much more fragile in the electronic environment, where individuals developing documents can replace versions without a record of the development of concepts. On the other hand, the mass can be overwhelming as well, as demonstrated by the fact that the Clinton Presidential Library holds 40 million e-mail messages from that eight-year administration.


As substantial as all the problems are, and they are substantial, equal are the benefits obtained by having this new environment within which records information is created and copies of physical documents are made and circulated.

The electronic environment gives us the potential to reach Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of preservation in a magnitude beyond his wildest imagination. Jefferson argued that the most effective means of preserving documents was duplication, and accordingly he sent quantities of his papers to be printed, papers sadly never seen again, I might add. From the perspective simply of duplication, it is possible in the digital environment to duplicate without end. All that we need to provide and ensure for the process to succeed is an inviolate exemplar against which copies can be checked.

Another benefit has to be the much greater access to archival inventories—the principal finding aid, analogous to, but much more elaborate, substantial, and detailed than a catalog record for a book. Archival repositories are pouring these onto their Web sites. And they are mounting them by using the Encoded Archival Description electronic form that
increases uniformity and facilitates navigation through the often substantial finding aid documents.

In Texas, you can go to the archives of your choice or to the TARO—

Texas Archival Resources Online (, which brings onto one Web site links to holdings of the major archival repositories in the state. Especially if your interest lies outside the state, you can go to the Repositories of Primary Sources site, hosted at Washington State University(, which has links to more than 5,250 archival repositories in North America, Europe, and elsewhere around the world. In the Web environment of today, it is far easier than ever before to learn about the holdings of an archival repository and to make contact with the repository to determine whether it holds information pertinent to your topic.

In fact, archives are experiencing a significant increase in inquiries, which is good. On the other hand, it is apparent that few of the inquirers are looking at the archival inventories first to learn what they can of the holdings and then focus their question accordingly. These inquiries are much more in the category of fishing expeditions. One person wrote the Texas State Archives: “Please send me a list of all the persons buried in unmarked graves in Texas.” Another wrote: “Dear Sir: I am writing in request of information on a Mexican War rebel. I don’t know his name, but he has red hair and is possibly from Ireland. I know this isn’t much to go on, but I hope you can find his name. And if you do, please send me all the free maps and phamplets [sic] you have on the Mexican War.” Electronic inquiries like these are multiplying.

About the soldier—first, the Texas State Archives was not the right archives in which to seek the redhead. After all, if records information is that produced in the conduct of affairs, then one needs to be clear on who fought the Mexican War—that is, the United States and Mexico. It was fought over Texas but not by Texas. In fact, an Irish brigade served in the American army, and we referred the inquirer to the National Archives for the muster rolls. We always wondered, but never did hear, whether the muster rolls recorded descriptions of the soldiers down to their hair color, and if they did, whether, out of the couple of thousand Irishmen in the brigade, only one had red hair.

Unintended Consequence

One unintended consequence of the wholesale shift in creation of records to the electronic environment is the loss of the surge a person feels in looking at hard-copy archival material. An adrenalin flow comes from holding in your hands documents written at the time by people who were part of the events. Appreciating this loss, one observer has suggested that in the not too distant future, production of documents by hand will become rare and prized, that users of archives will become particularly attentive to harvesting the understanding one can gain of an individual by studying the characteristics of his or her handwriting—the weight, the lightness; the plainness, the floweriness, the neatness or the messiness of the writing itself.


What a time to be an archivist or a researcher utilizing archives!

Look at the changing nature of records. A thousand years ago, memory was the record. The jury, for example, consisted of people brought forward to testify to the facts, not to sit in judgment. Over the succeeding three hundred years or so, western civilization shifted so as to accept the written record—something outside of the individual—as the record, the truth. Three hundred years were required to complete this shift. The record that emerged was a descriptive thing. It described an event, recorded the steps in a business transaction, conveyed an authority or condition, or was an account of a financial transaction. Not until the beginning of the twentieth century did we develop significantly new forms of record, such as the chart and graph, which were developed as a means of analyzing information, particularly information in other records.

When I took my first job in an archival repository in 1959 and we talked of storage, we talked of buildings that would contain the production of records for fifty years, maybe more. We knew that the records we had would outlive us—that is, that a human generation was shorter than a generation of records. After all, people had been writing letters for thousands of years and writing them on paper for at least half a millennium.

Then came the electronic record, substantial widespread use of which dates only from the 1980s. In the last twenty years, we have created more truly new kinds of documentation than had been created, depending on how you measure it, in 100 years or 1,000 years: e-mails with links and attachments; compound documents bringing together text, sound, and image; and virtual records, being the one created for the moment on your screen from databases of information at places you have visited only electronically.

Every generation of hardware and software in which electronic records are created is changing so fast that multiple generations of records pass during the active lifetime of a professional archivist. And the period of time we—records keepers and those who create records alike—have in which to understand, accommodate, and master the management of records information in the electronic environment is equally short, not hundreds of years, not even decades.

No less challenging is the need to ensure that the information displayed on the screen is what it is purported to be. Traditional means of assessing authenticity have little or no application in the electronic environment. Tests and strategies specific to records in electronic form not only are needed but also must be available to and understood by every user of records as never before, because electronic records lack the familiar characteristics so immediately present for assessment in physical documents.

Look, too, at the way contemporary users of archives, first, find out about the existence of records and, second, increasingly access those records pertinent to their needs. They go on-line and search the Web sites of archival repositories, which contain both archival inventories describing holdings of the repository and, increasingly, digital copies of documents referred to in the inventories. Then, using e-mail, they dash off inquiries challenging the archivist to orient the information they seek to the entity(s) that likely handled the affair(s) in the course of which the information desired was generated, thus suggesting where it is to be found.

Surely, during this commencement season, were Mary Schmich or even Kurt Vonnegut writing this talk on the documentary record in the electronic environment, specifically on the sea change in the nature and use of records resulting from the advent of electronic records, both would no doubt counsel you to be careful, have a good time—and, oh yes, wear sunscreen.