Observation at the NY Federal Reserve’s Archives

By kraines

On Friday, December 9th, I joined associate archivist, Julie Sager, and observed her work at the New York Federal Reserve’s. I spent a few hours in the afternoon with Miss Sager, observing the work she does and discussing current issues in archiving. The day was as exciting, as it was interesting. Simply entering the building was awe-inspiring as you can’t help but imagine you’re walking into a castle. A tower adorns one corner of the stone structure and huge arched ceilings mark an era of grandeur in New York construction.

First we stopped up in the library, a bustling room of cubicles and chatty voices. Miss Sager described the work she does on most days, starting with email and research in the mornings. Some afternoons consist of status meetings or a recent committee to re-establish the access and retention policies for records stored on-site. However, most afternoons are spent researching in the archives for queries and FOIA requests.

Most information requested through FOIA is already available through public record but many people think a FOIA request is required. When information is sealed, a FOIA request does not guarantee access. Access is determined by the law department. Other times, the requester want to see the steps taken during research by the archivist, as required by FOIA requests. Miss Sager helped to develop the reporting system used to track the workflow of research using a program called sharepoint. The library and archivist team is able to track all research because the program allows for reproducible searches and reduces research time for similar or multiple inquiries on the same info.

Next, we walked through the archives and records rooms as she discussed a recent problem. We pulled a few boxes in archives to search through later. The archives and records are stored in old cash and coin vaults. They are sealed behind huge metal doors with complex locking mechanisms (picture gringotts in Harry Potter.) Recently, Miss Sager has been following the trail of some missing records. Lending to banks was typically recorded in the meeting minutes by members of the federal reserve; however, during WWI lending practices reported through a different method. Miss Sager was able to determine why the records are missing from archived meeting minutes but has not been able to find the missing information. Interestly, Miss Sager is now responding to the 3rd of 4th request from different parties in the last year for the same missing info.

Records are created by outside parties, such as banks and businesses, and are stored on-site for a predetermined amount of time. Miss Sager has recently been involved in the research and decision to change the time a record is kept in storage at the federal reserve. Based on information she has found at other institutions, she suggests they keep records for 20 years before removing or archiving them. When a record is removed, it is either returned to the creator or destroyed. I asked how Miss Sager feels her career may be affected by the move toward digitization in archives and libraries. She says that her career will be secure for at least the 10-20 years left in current records. She and her boss also plan to find classes based on archiving born-digital documents. She says, “There aren’t as many solutions to born-digital [records] yet… I have records now that are printed emails because they didn’t know how to save them at the time.”

The idea of printing emails to save them is laughable but during a time when servers couldn’t host, save, or archive important emails, printing was the best solution. Digital preservation comes with the challenge of fragility. Born-digital objects do not fade in sections or lose only portions of information as a book or printed object would. Rather, they become unusable with time due to file corruption and most often because hardware has upgraded. (1) Most often in preserving born-digital materials, we rely on printed emails, screenshots, and other second hand methods of retention. The original will never be captured fully, although snapshots may convey the intention. This method of preservation may be the only solutions we have currently but in the overwhelming amount of information created in today’s digital age, new options will need to be explored.

(1) Rosenzweig, R. (2003, June). Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era. The American Historical Review, 108(3), 735-762.

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