How many archives are in the United States?

Archives located in the Gulf South

In recent years, there’s been growing awareness within the United States cultural heritage community about exposure to climate change. Many emerging communities of concerned cultural heritage professionals have emerged. There is now a Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice, the American Library Association Sustainability Roundtable, and ProjectARCC (Archivists Responding to Climate Change). Climate change is showing up at conferences and journals in the field.

One of the major challenges in assessing the risk of climate change to cultural heritage is that data on cultural heritage is inconsistent. How can you predict how many museums, libraries, or archives will be exposured to climate change without adequate data on how many institutions exist in a given vulnerable location? There is a lot of great data on museums thanks to the Museum Universe Data File. There is a semi-representative directory of American libraries (but it leaves out school libraries). But as an archivist working on climate change issues, I was pretty dismayed to discover a few years ago that there really isn’t a comprehensive data set of archives in the United States.

Last year, my research collaborator Ben Goldman (Penn State University) and I received a Society of American Archivists (SAA) Foundation grant to attempt to compile the first comprehensive data set of all US archives. The roots of this project began with an article we co-authored with geospatial experts from Penn State, in which we took a very limited data set of around 1,200 archives (furnished by OCLC’s ArchiveGrid) and examined their exposure to climate change risks, like sea-level rise, storm surge, and changes in temperature/humidity. However, we knew if there was ever going to be a comprehensive risk assessment of US archives, someone had to bring together a comprehensive data set of how many US archives exist and where they are located. This is what we set out to do with our SAA Foundation grant.

Over the course of the grant, we worked with a fantastic assistant, Whitney Ray, who did an incredible amount of heavy lifting with contacting over 150 archival organizations for any data they had. Essentially, we reached out to anyone we thought may have maintained lists of archives in their region or area of interest. What we received was over 30,000 raw data points! The data came to us in every way you can imagine – from very tidy spreadsheets to webpages with broken links to PDFs of archives. You can read much more about our workflow and process on our RepoData project blog.

We’ve now made data available for 30 states plus Washington DC on our public GitHub repository. We plan to work through the remainder of the states through 2018. While we originally created this data because we know it’s critical for future climate assessment work, we know there will be a lot of potential reuse for it – and we’re excited to see how people use it!

What does records management have to do with maintenance?

Coast Guard and Agencies Response to Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

In April 2016, Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel published an article in Aeon titled “Hail the Maintainers.” Russell and Vinsel called for a closer examination of how our culture venerates technological innovation. We elevate innovation and innovators, while overlooking the important role of maintenance in keeping society going. The concept took off, and there has been a subsequent conference known as The Maintainers and many academic articles on maintenance, particularly on the history of technology.

Archivist Hillel Arnold has applied the idea of maintenance theory to the work of archivists, noting that archivists “do the hard and invisible work of maintaining records. Not only do we perpetuate the physical existence of records through preservation activities, we also manage ongoing access to records, in part by maintaining the context of record creation and maintenance through arrangement and description processes.” Hillel and I collaborated last fall on a paper tracing the connections between recordkeeping, maintenance, and environmental regulation. In recent months, I’ve started to examine how the maintenance of regulatory recordkeeping breaks down during fossil fuel industrial accidents and disasters – with significant consequences both for workers and the environment.

Fossil fuel energy production is a highly regulated industry – at least on paper. However, despite the thousands of regulations that govern the extraction of coal, oil, and natural gas, and subsequent downstream production and transmission activities, these regulations have failed to protect the health of workers, nearby communities, and the environment due to several factors that include regulatory capture and lack of enforcement capabilities. Recordkeeping violations are also an explanation for regulatory failures. Industry failure to maintain authentic records – whether by manipulating existing records, or by destroying incriminating records – can accelerate dangerous situations.

Examples of these failures of recordkeeping can be found in two deadly energy industry accidents that happened just two weeks apart in April 2010.  On April 5, an underground mine explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia killed twenty-nine miners. On April 20, an explosion occurred at the offshore drilling platform known as Deepwater Horizon, located 40 miles off the Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven workers were killed on Deepwater Horizon, and oil leaked from the site for close to 6 months, resulting in the worst domestic oil spill in history.

Investigations of the Upper Big Branch disaster found that Massey Energy, the parent company, routinely underreported safety violations in the records they shared with regulators. In other words, Massey Energy manipulated the very records that could have demonstrated to regulators that the mine needed to make necessary safety improvements.

In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, many of the recordkeeping concerns that surfaced were over questions of responsibility and accountability for the months-long oil spill in the Gulf. One BP executive was accused of manipulating oil spill estimates. Others were accused of destroying evidence associated with the post-disaster investigations.

We are currently in a period of increasing deregulation of environmental protections. When it comes to American fossil fuel companies, there is a clear role that recordkeeping – or rather, attacks on recordkeeping – play in deregulation. Effective regulation – whether over fossil fuel production and emissions, or workplace safety rules – requires comprehensive and accurate recordkeeping. In contrast, American politicians who support expansion of fossil fuel energy production in the United States routinely deride regulatory oversight as limiting economic progress and domestic energy independence. One of the primary tools of deregulation has been to cut back the amount of information that industry is required to share with regulators, or the amount of recordkeeping it must maintain internally for safety and accountability.

Recordkeeping alone cannot produce environmental health and workplace safety. But achieving either is impossible without baseline records that provide accountability and information to affected communities.

Above Board, Below the Ground

December 12, 2013, Youngstown, Ohio. Truck crash and spill. EPA incident review conducted. Truck was a contractor hauling fracking wastewater from ChemTron in Avon, OH. Liquids went into storm sewers and Crab Creek – a tributary of Mahoning River. Image courtesy of FracTracker. Photos from Lynn Anderson, Frack Free Mahoning, & Jean Engle, Youngstown Community Bill of Rights Committee

In my recent explorations of how recordkeeping practices inform environmental policy and knowledge, an interesting trend has revealed itself in the context of state regulation of fracking in the Marcellus/Utica shale region (i.e., Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia). State agencies in these areas are far more likely to proactively disclose records concerning permits, well locations, and production volume than any other records.

This means that there is significant data on the expansion of fracking – from its geographical extent to the volume of extractive activity. What is far more difficult to obtain is information on the effects of fracking. In other words, the records that contextualize fracking’s impact on the communities where it takes place – complaints, routine inspections, and investigations – are largely absent from the available data on state oil and gas websites. Instead, citizens must file records requests to obtain this information. Pennsylvania is a notable exception in comparison to Ohio and West Virginia, as it discloses records specifically pertaining to inspections and waste production and handling. It also partially discloses complaint and investigation records (primarily related to water contamination issues).

Ohio’s inspection records are highly obscured, requiring one to go through a very confusing process to obtain records from the Department of Natural Resources website. There is no obvious way to search for specific inspection, complaint, or investigation records through either Ohio or West Virginia’s website. Ohio law requires that a database concerning major violations by oil and gas operators be made available to the public on the Division of Oil and Gas resources website. Some of this information may be available through Ohio’s RBDMS application, but due to installation difficulties, I was unable to confirm this. When I asked an agency official regarding whether this web database was available, I was told the agency was “in the process” of creating it. The law calling for such a database was passed in 2010 and amended in 2011.

According to an issue paper authored by the Natural Resources Defense Council and FracTracker, West Virginia once had an active Oil and Gas spills database that was updated at least through 2013. The database is still hosted online, but does not appear to have any records in it from the last several years, or the time period in the issue paper.

When agencies have leeway to determine the scope of their proactive information disclosure, what is shared likely reflects how the agency views it mission. It appears that Ohio and West Virginia’s regulatory agencies prioritize disclosing information about the growth of fracking far more than its potential ramifications for the environment.

Sunlight as the best disinfectant?

Sunrise over Yellowstone Lake, US Geological Survey. Photo credit: Philip Sandstorm, Montana State University.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously stated that “sunlight was the best disinfectant,” enshrining a principle of transparency as a cornerstone for open democracy and good governance. The United States passed the Freedom of Information Act following Watergate in 1974, and many states subsequently adopted their own freedom of information (FOI) laws (often times referred to as sunshine, open records, or right to know laws). Freedom of information laws give the public broad rights to access records, however the burden to obtain the information still falls on the individual.

Since the passage of FOI laws, there has also been a movement towards what is known as proactive disclosure. This is when public entities proactively share information, data, and records with the public. The internet has made proactive disclosure cheaper and easier, and has given rise to many efforts towards what is known as “open government,” in which data sets from the government are made available to the public.

Transparency of information is an idea that most people agree on in principle, but in practice, the implementation is very uneven. Furthermore, there isn’t conclusive evidence that transparency leads to improvement for the public. In “Transparency With(out) Accountability,” Shkabatur (2012) notes that voluminous amounts of government information are now available, however a lack of context around that data, agency discretion over what to release, and a lack of enforcement has not led to government accountability.

An example of this paradox of transparency can be seen with environmental information. State and federal environmental laws require the disclosure of massive amounts of environmental information. On the other hand, that information is often not contextualized and agencies are not necessarily required to make information easy to find and understand, as long as it is available somewhere. In other words, Ohio may release information related to where gas wells are located, but it does not have to share other information that would make this information meaningful to the general public, such as how many complaints have been filed in proximity to a given well.

In this example, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources can technically say they are being “transparent” – after all, they are providing information about wells on a website accessible to the public. But unless you are a subject specialist, many of the available well records are incomprehensible to the general public. The records show evidence of actions that an agency took (approving construction and ongoing production of a well), but few of the records shed any light on the broader policy decisions and directions of the agency.

 

Evidence of absence

A foundational principle of archival theory and practice is that records have evidential value. Many users (and archivists themselves!) typically approach records for what informational value they have: What slogans are depicted in a photo of Vietnam-era student protesters waving signs? Can this birth certificate prove my great-grandmother’s birth date? Will this set of meeting minutes recall what decisions were made?

So what do we mean by evidential value? Evidential records are those that document the processes, organization, and functional activities of an organization. This is a bit of a loopy statement, so let’s return to birth certificates, which have great evidential and informational value. To a genealogist trying to ascertain the date their great-grandmother was born, the birth certificate contains important information– the date of the birth. But the records are also evidence of the government’s responsibility for maintaining vital records of citizens’ major life events (i.e., birth, marriage, divorce, death).

One of the lines of inquiry I’ve been pursuing recently is that effective regulation depends on good recordkeeping. Recordkeeping has become extremely fraught in the area of environmental regulation.  Recordkeeping not only provides information about what activities with environmental impacts are taking place in a given location, records also serve as evidence that a given agency is fulfilling its mission of environmental regulation by maintaining appropriate records.

Evidentiary value is important, because who creates records and how has great meaning and consequence. A governmental agency may be responsible for monitoring a body of water for pollution. A citizen activist group may do the same thing because they want to maintain their own records to compare with an agency’s monitoring records. Even if both of these groups produced records with potentially identical informational value (e.g., measurements of pollution levels in water), the evidential value attached to each is radically different. The government creates the records as part of its statutory obligation to monitor water pollution. The citizen activist group does the same in order to corroborate or contest the government’s findings. Thus, evidential value associated with records is as important as what information is recorded within records.

An interesting case study of the evidential value of records can be found in the Ohio Attorney General’s lawsuit filed against the Rover Pipeline. The pipeline is a 713-mile natural gas pipeline being built through northern and eastern Ohio, with links to Pennsylvania, Michigan, and West Virginia. Energy Transfer Partners is building the pipeline, and it is the same company that built the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline. The lawsuit alleged that the Rover Pipeline illegally discharged drilling fluid, failed to secure discharge permits, and violated another permit it did hold.

In this lawsuit, recordkeeping — both the lack of permits on the one hand, and the violation of existing permits on the other hand – is the foundation for the legal action. Permits provide information on allowable pollution levels, but as records, they are also evidence by which corporations interact with regulators. The only legal way to emit pollution is to obtain an official record (a permit from Ohio EPA) allowing a certain threshold of pollution. The evidentiary value of records provides a form of legal authorization, regardless of whether the pollution allowed by the permits is advisable to begin with. When a corporation fails to seek permits as required by law, or when it violates existing permits, the state must decide whether to pursue an enforcement action. If the corporation had sought permits and abided within their limits – even if environmentalists questioned the threshholds of the permits to begin with – the state would not have grounds to pursue legal enforcement against a corporation. Therefore, the informational and evidential value of records are a key component of regulatory enforcement.

The recordkeeping of energy infrastructure

Natural gas pipeline capacity out of Ohio

When people think of the energy industry, they often picture heavy industrial equipment – pipelines criss-crossing prairies, oil rigs along coastlines, or earthmovers pushing mountaintop overburden into valleys below. But what about the invisible equipment? How do we visualize the caverns that store nuclear energy production waste? How do we know where the underground  piping is that connects us to the grid? How can we tell when there are wells nearby?

We cannot see invisible infrastructure, and even visible infrastructure blends into the background of our daily lives. But we can see the outlines of all infrastructure by inspecting the records associated with it. Some recordkeeping associated with the energy industry’s infrastructure is available to the public – permits that must be filed with state and federal agencies, for example. Other recordkeeping conducted for internal corporate administration is considered private business information. Some business information may be shared with the public if an energy company is a public company, but other forms of information may be proprietary.

One of the fastest growing sectors of domestic energy production is hydraulic fracturing of shale formations, better known as fracking. Ohio is located in a major shale formation and is the 7th largest producer of natural gas. According to the Energy Information Agency, “[t]he Utica Shale has contributed to the rapid increase in natural gas production in Ohio, which was almost 19 times greater in 2016 than 2011.” Ohio’s neighbors of West Virginia and Pennsylvania are part of the Utica and Marcellus Shale formations, and also rank highly for natural gas production (Pennsylvania is the #2 domestic producer, West Virginia is #8).

Most oil and gas activities are regulated at the state-level, and therefore different states have varying regulations around fracking. As a result, the impacts from fracking are experienced differently depending on where you live. Since there is a different regulatory landscape from state to state, this means that the information and records concerning fracking vary across state lines. To put it another way, this means that the public has different levels of information about fracking depending on where it’s carried out.

An illuminating example can be found with disclosure of chemicals used for hydraulic fracturing. Many states use the registry FracFocus for chemical disclosure. However, a recent study of FracFocus showed that 92% of submitted chemical disclosures for wells “withheld at least one ingredient record” by classifying it as a trade secret, confidential or proprietary business information (Konschnik and Dayalu, 2016, p. 508).

This issue will almost certainly continue to be of regional importance for both industry and concerned citizens. Ohio and Pennsylvania increased their production of natural gas more than any other states between 2015-2016, and the Energy Information Agency “projects that natural gas production will increase in both 2017 and 2018 as natural gas prices rise.” As the federal government and many states continue to embrace domestic fossil-fuel production over renewable energy, this is a topic that deserves our attention.

What’s in the water?

Ohio River headwaters in Pittsburgh
Formation of the Ohio River in Pittsburgh by the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. Photograph taken by Eira Tansey, October 2017.

What’s in the water?

Ohio’s status as a “water-rich state” has meant that it has long been a flashpoint for concerns over how to ensure protection of our water resources, particularly as Ohio’s waterways have played a significant part in regional industry. One of the most famous images of the environmental movement was Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River catching on fire in 1969 – it was not the first time, as it had caught on fire several times before, going back to the mid-1800s. If you want to learn more about the political atmosphere of Cleveland during this event, UC history professor (and friend of the Archives and Rare Books Library) David Stradling has written a book about it.

One of the landmark federal laws that was placed under authority of the newly established EPA was the 1972 Clean Water Act. The Clean Water Act actually traced its origins to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948, and was the result of many amendments to the 1948 law. The Clean Water Act requires significant recordkeeping and information systems in order to support implementation of the law. Much of the Clean Water Act’s powers are delegated to state environmental protection agencies (for example, Ohio’s Environmental Protection Agency, or Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection). One of the major parts of the Clean Water Act is a permitting system known as the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). The NPDES system “regulates discharges of pollutants from municipal and industrial wastewater treatment plants, sewer collection systems, and stormwater discharges from industrial facilities and municipalities.”

As a system of bureaucratic recordkeeping, the NPDES system reveals much about how we have attempted to take hard-to-quantify aspects of our environment, and pack it down into standardized documentation about human impact.

For example, reviewing a recent draft permit for a wastewater facility in the greater Cincinnati area, this permit will last for five years. It requires the wastewater facility to self-report sampling levels of their discharges to one of the tributaries of the Ohio River. Sampling must take place Monday through Friday but the time of day doesn’t have to be reported, and the permit holder must retain records for three years. One can imagine arguing for modifying any of these recordkeeping requirements upwards or downwards, based on your orientation towards deregulation or to environmental protection.

Recordkeeping is not a neutral act. What is reported and recorded reflects information necessary for regulatory fulfillment. Choices about recordkeeping – what to record, when to record it, who should record it, how often to record it, where to store it, and public vs proprietary access, reflect competing values attached to environmental information.