Monday, March 23, 2015

When Electronic-Docs Disappear

In January, the State Library of Massachusetts was celebrating a new year, newly renovated reading room and the state of Massachusetts was gearing up for a new governor. The library was busy and the building was buzzing about Governor Deval Patrick’s “Lone Walk” and Governor Charlie Baker’s Inauguration Day. We had been getting questions about the new governor and his administration when I got a call at the reference desk asking where all of Governor Patrick’s speeches had disappeared to. Disappeared to? As reference librarians, we are used to questions like, “Where can I find this?” or “Do you have a copy of that?” But when someone calls to ask, “Where did that go?” reference work can be a bit harder.

It took me a minute to realize what the patron was asking., the official website for the Commonwealth, had online copies of every speech Governor Patrick had given available online at However, with a new homepage now representing Governor Baker, the material from the last administration had left along with Governor Patrick himself. A website that had once displayed speeches, press releases, executive orders and other information from the previous administration seemed to have been lost.

In our modern day of born-digital records and publications that are now solely available online, we as librarians and archivists have to be a step ahead. Just because an item is not cataloged and placed on a shelf, does not mean it is not part of our collection. For electronic documents, The Massachusetts State Library uses a digital repository system called Dspace. Dpsace is an electronic archive system which stores our digital collection so that it is accessible to everyone. While some materials we have digitized and cataloged ourselves, many of the publications are electronic documents that are found online by librarians or our online crawler system. Since we receive publications in both digital and physical formats, it is up to library staff to keep track of what format items are being created in and how best to make them available to our patrons and the public

So what do you do when neither the librarians nor the crawler has pulled a document into your collection and you do not have physical copies? What happens when digital data seems to disappear? These speeches surely were not gone for good and some are available online through other institutions. But to gain access to every speech would involve quite a bit of digging and e-mailing and creative thinking. Tracking down every speech might have been impossible. When we are living in an age of instant information, where deadlines and time limits are factors and you have come to count on a certain resource or website, what do you do?

In this instance, we were saved by The Internet Archive. The Internet Archive is a non-profit that has created an internet library of born digital items and websites. With their Wayback Machine, the public is able to look at websites from different dates and times, depending on when a capture was taking by the Wayback Machine’s crawler. While we could go back to in 2001, all we needed to do was to go to the day before to find the old site and its materials.

The library staff used the Wayback Machine to pull all of Governor Patrick’s speeches and will continue to catalog new speeches by Governor Baker. However, these speeches are just an example of the many documents we at the library are trying to archive. With the huge amount of data and variety of records that are put online, it seems impossible that we’d be able to grab every resource and publication that comes out of the Massachusetts State Government. While some people may think that everything is online these days, remember that electronic documents are a form of media that if not cared for, can disappear just as easily as a paper pamphlet in a fire or flood. What is online has to be protected, archived and arranged just like every physical book and document that came before it. At the State Library, we are working to keep up with the ever changing medium of electronic documents so that you can find the information you need.

To find out what publications and items we have in our physical and digital collection, search our catalog and explore our website!

Stephanie Turnbull
Reference Department