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Records a click away at archives

Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed gives an interview after Monday's dedication of the Washington state digital archives building at EWU.
 (Christopher Anderson/ / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed gives an interview after Monday's dedication of the Washington state digital archives building at EWU. (Christopher Anderson/ / The Spokesman-Review)

With the promise of saving valuable and endangered public records, state officials opened a new $14.3 million archives building just down the street from Woodward Field on Eastern Washington University’s campus in Cheney on Monday.

They boasted about their 17,000-square-foot brick and glass building where state workers will salvage valuable electronic government records. At the same time, they introduced the state’s archives Web site, a new service that will help people easily access state and local legal records, such as marriage licenses, birth certificates and military records.

If you want to find a copy of your marriage license or, for that matter, your grandparents’ license, you can go to the state archives Web site and type in the name, said Adam Jansen, the state’s digital archivist. This access will be a boon to some of the archives’ biggest customers, such as genealogists and lawyers, but it also will make the archives friendlier to the infrequent user, Jansen said.

He demonstrated the site at a news conference Monday morning. “Come on, come on,” he said, urging the computer system to move faster as an image from his laptop was projected behind him. A few minutes and a few clicks later, the 2003 marriage record of a Spokane resident popped up. Jansen then quickly ordered a certified copy online.

“This is a great tool for our public,” said Chelan County Auditor Evelyn Arnold, a partner in the online digital records effort.

She explained how delicate paper documents and film records can be damaged by public use. With the online access, anyone can access the material without damaging it, she said. And, instead of driving to the county that might have your record, you can get on the computer and look for it any time and any day, she said.

Besides widening access to the public, the digital archives will help preserve the many public records that are born electronic, said Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed.

If, for example, Lincoln had written the Gettysburg address on a laptop, without a digital archive it might be lost, he said. Today in state government, substantive issues are discussed over e-mail or are recorded by electronic means. Unless the government does something to capture and maintain that information, it could be lost forever, said Reed.

“Electronic records have been disappearing at an alarming rate because we’ve had no means to preserve them,” he said. “These are records we need to make public policy, to conduct day-to-day business and to prepare for the future.”

Once Reed took state office, saving electronic public records and making them widely available ranked among his top priorities. “It frankly took a while to convince the Legislature,” said Reed.

But after working with county auditors, he established a surcharge on records to help pay for the effort.

“I really treasure what previous generations have done in terms of preserving history,” he said, adding that now it’s time for him to do his part.

Microsoft Corp. and EDS, an information technology services company, designed the system that would take data from a variety of electronic platforms and consolidate it for the state’s archives. The system also backs up the information and provides a digital lock that protects the integrity of the original documents. The partnership also designed the Cheney-based digital archives to hold up to 800 terabytes of information, which equals about 200 billion pages of text.

In addition to the digital rooms, the new building also has classrooms for Eastern students and faculty, as well as 40,000 cubic feet for storing the paper records of the 640 government agencies in Eastern Washington. Some of these documents date back to 1883.

“While there are 2.4 million records on the system now and the material is rich and diverse, it’s by no means complete,” said archivist Jansen.

Users can find marriage records for Spokane, Snohomish and Chelan counties, for example, but most of the rest of the state marriage licenses have not yet been put online.

Still, those interested in glimpsing at the state’s history can access the site and get a look at some of Washington’s founding documents and its earliest census records. The digital archives can be accessed at


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