By Carrie Daniels
Over the past year, the University of Louisville has experienced an unprecedented level of administrative turnover in the presidency, the board of trustees, and the leadership of the University of Louisville Foundation (ULF), the charitable organization that helps support the activities of the University. The unfolding events added urgency to the development and clarification of some of the University Archives’ policies: issues we had been “working on” for years – including email preservation – could no longer be considered a theoretical problem.
While it is difficult to identify the true “beginning” of the turmoil, by March 2016, the Board of Trustees and Faculty Senate were discussing votes of no confidence in the president. There were also concerns about the president’s dual role as head of both the university and the ULF. We wanted to preserve a record of the events, of course, but we also wanted to capture the impact it had on attitudes and opinions within our larger community. We had a longstanding tradition of supplementing the official university record with clippings from newspapers, magazines, and (more recently) blogs, and we continued collecting these materials. However, the colleague who had been responsible for this activity for decades found himself newly concerned: what if the president’s office learned we had several file folders’ worth of newspaper clippings containing comments critical of him? Would the Archives, or the Libraries as a whole, suffer as a result? After a brief discussion at a staff meeting, we agreed we had to continue “clipping” in order to preserve a complete and accurate picture. I offered to take any responsibility for the activity, trusting in the twin shields of our duty to preserve the record as objectively as possible and my status as a tenured faculty member. As it turned out, we were the least of the president’s office’s concerns.
In June 2016, the Republican governor dissolved the existing board and replaced it with a new, smaller board. He also announced that the president would tender his resignation to the new board as soon as it was installed. The Democratic attorney general filed suit, arguing that the governor did not have the authority to dissolve the board; a judge reinstated the old board pending the outcome of the suit. We were unsure who our “real” board of trustees was, but nonetheless, the president negotiated his exit and departed.
While my colleague continued to clip print articles, we also knew there was a lot more going on online. Stories were breaking daily about the president, his exit, the board of trustees (both of them), the governor, and the attorney general. As we had for a special project in 2009, we used a short-term Archive-It account. Our Archivist for Manuscript Collections and I worked from Google alerts to create an individual “seed” for each story. While we still didn’t have the financial resources to use Archive-It on an ongoing basis, we made as much use of it as we could. When we exhausted the remaining space on our Archive-It account, we began preserving web-based stories as PDFs. Given our time and budgetary constraints, this seemed our best alternative: PDF/A is an acceptable preservation format; the vast majority of the stories did not contain relevant links, only links to advertisements; and PDFs are easy to provide access to.
With the president’s exit, I also realized we had come to a major fork in the road: I had to talk to the President’s Office about obtaining his electronic files, particularly his email. This was completely new territory for us. The Archives was at an interesting juncture in other ways, as well: our records manager had recently departed, and I was working with a couple of other colleagues to cover his responsibilities while we searched for a new Archivist for Records Management. In the interviews I did my best to explain our tentative entry into electronic records – as a founding member of the MetaArchive Cooperative, we had plenty of experience with digital preservation, but less with the ingest of digital files from university offices – and hoped we could recruit someone who was interested in developing this program with me. (We did!)
At the same time, I pursued access to the former president’s files. I contacted the interim president, who was now responsible for the records of the Office of the President. He was immediately supportive, but I still had to convince Information Technology (IT) that copies of the files could – in fact, should – be transferred to us. In my initial conversations with IT, I learned that the former president had not saved many files to his assigned network space; the assumption was that his assistants created his documents. But he had plenty of email.
And here we ran into a surprising roadblock. While the University Archivist is named in the university’s governance document (the “Redbook”) as the custodian of university records, IT was nervous enough to confer with the University Counsel’s office. And while I had anticipated concerns about the speed with which we might make the material available, the Counsel’s office was actually worried about attorney-client privilege. That is, they were concerned that by releasing privileged email to us, they would essentially be sharing them with a third party, and thus nullifying privilege. Like most college presidents, ours had been named in suits against the university, sometimes simply by virtue of being the head of the institution. We ultimately agreed that email between the former president and individuals at specific law firms (identified by the domain name in their email addresses) could be filtered out of the material we received. While this is somewhat less than optimal, we know the files will be maintained by IT pending several “litigation holds” (i.e., they cannot be destroyed until the litigation is resolved), giving us a chance to follow up with them again after the dust has settled.
Our new Archivist for Records Management worked with IT’s specialist to use Library of Congress’s Bagger application to “bag” the .pst files (in 10 GB “chunks”) and transfer them to the Archives. We still have to face the issues of long-term preservation and access, but at least we have them in our possession.
In January 2017, we learned that our interim president was departing as well. In his case, it was to take the presidency at another institution, so the circumstances were happier. And since we had worked through the technical and organizational issues, the process of transferring his email went off without a hitch. While we certainly expected to cross these bridges under calmer circumstances, I am almost (almost) grateful that we were forced into action. We might do things differently next time, but we were able to develop and act on a reasonable plan in a short period of time. The approaches we worked out under these pressing circumstances are at least a starting point – something concrete we can modify and build on – rather than theoretical musings.
Carrie Daniels is University Archivist and Director of Archives and Special Collections at the University of Louisville. She holds an MSLIS from Simmons College and an EdM from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.