Thinking Beyond the Box: How Military Archivists are Meeting 21st Century Challenges #saa13

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Mimi Dionne avatar

The educational sessions of the Joint Annual Meeting of the Council of State Archivists and the Society of American Archivists concluded at the Hilton Riverside in New Orleans, Louisiana on Saturday, August 17, 2013. This session addressed military archives best practice in the 21st century.

First Steps for Military Archives Round Table

The panel was made up of:

  • Paul A. Oelkrug, Coordinator of Special Collections, The University of Texas at Dallas
  • Dr. James Ginther, Archivist, Marine Corps University
  • Anthony R. Crawford, Associate Professor University Archivist / Curator of Manuscripts, Kansas State University
  • Joel W. Westphal, Former CENTCOM Command Records Manager

While Crawford focused on the relevance and value of military archives to multidisciplinary research topics, Westphal outlined the issues of processing massive amounts of digital records from the war in Iraq using innovative management and processing techniques on an archives of national importance.

It may have been 8am, but Oelkrug opened with exuberance. “This is an important milestone for the Military Archives Round Table (MART). Today we celebrate the first panel MART-sponsored session at an SAA conference.”

It was indeed a tremendous leap forward for the management of military records, SAA and its MART.

Call to Action for Military Records

Crawford began the first of two compelling arguments for more focused records discussions in our military. “Thank you for responding to reveille! Military records programs face three major hurdles:

  • shrinking financial support,
  • thinking outside of the box to promote and increase use of holdings, and
  • identifying and promoting hidden treasures.

I believe military archives may increase their exposure to researchers through:

  • the use of military collections by researchers from nonmilitary disciplines,
  • emphasizing the importance of military series/items in nonmilitary collections, and
  • promoting contents and use of holdings.”

Crawford enthusiastically displayed slides from the Kansas State University Archives. He framed them against current academic research topics. For example, the

  • Marjorie L. Honstead Feldhausen Papers:women’s studies, nursing, local / state / regional history, historic preservation, in addition to military history;
  • April 1945 issue of Overseas Women: included a cover by an accomplished artist and the contents emphasized the role of women in WWII, including “Hitler’s Women”;
  • Page Family Collection: a history of medicine through examinationrecords of recruits for the Civil War;
  • Gail T. Kubik Collection: musical scores for motion pictures during World War II;
  • Richard Seitz Papers; Hollywood and military movies; and,
  • Clementine Paddleford Papers: food history as well as nutrition and health studies.

Other examples included archeology, geography/maps and theater/plays.

Brainstorm ways to promote holdings, Crawford recommended:

  • identify potential user groups,
  • finding aids, guides and collection descriptions,
  • digitize relevant holdings,
  • create articles and announcements in publications,
  • organize exhibits and special events, and
  • develop relationships with area K-12 and academic institutions.

Preserving Operation Iraqi Freedom Collections

Westphal continued. The mission to capture, preserve and organize the Operation Iraqi Freedom collections at US Central Command (CENTCOM) was no small feat. It was the

  • first time in military history that the majority of records created were digital (95%+) in format;
  • the largest single transfer of electronic data from a war zone during an ongoing military operation; and
  • the largest single collection of electronic war records in history.

In 1991, only a small percentage of Gulf War records arrived at the National Archives. As usual, loss of records management program support was a direct result of senior leadership support. Post-war investigations reported that many units actively burned their entire collection of operational records rather than return with them at their home stations.

CENTCOM was determined to apply lessons learned in the new millennia. It created the equivalent of a pilot project in the corporate world. As early as 2006, CENTCOM worked on preservation projects designed to capture out-going Commanders’ records. These two projects resulted in what is called the Abizaid/Franks record collection. These 2 collections contain nearly 200,000 high level operational records from the early days of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM and Operation IRAQI FREEDOM. 

Learning Opportunities

NARA formed the War Records Group in April 2009. The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) visited CENTCOM in June 2009 and were informed of the War Records Group. Records policy at the time stated that records be transferred back to CENTCOM as a recommended, but not required, procedure at end of mission (CENTCOM had limited authority to demand records transfer). All efforts in 2009 focused on the US Forces-Iraq to implement a fully functional records management program.

A 5-day assessment conducted in April 2010 revealed:

  • most data was unstructured and unmanaged;
  • no records management draw-down plan; and,
  • volume, location and size of USF-I collection unknown.

The con: because a draft report was released to the public, it wasn’t entirely accurate. The pro: the report elevated the problem to command in the theater at a crucial moment. The formal records inventory exercise began.

The records team was able to quantify and qualify data as well as determine gaps and organization structure. More than 50 TB as “old” as 2004 were located. Later that year, a technical transfer team was assigned. It procured an 80 TB SAN. To augment the records transfer, the team drafted the Concept of Operations (CONOPS). On August 31st 2010, President Obama declared the combat mission in Iraq over. The records created by USF-I under Contingency Operation NEW DAWN became the property of CENTCOM immediately. The technical transfer team left for Baghdad within 24 hours. Over a period of three months, the SAN was integrated into the CENTCOM IT infrastructure.

Let’s just say the numbers are impressive.

Phase II included a backup solution and a transfer of at least one backup to NARA.The team has the typical electronic records project concerns: size of data, redundant/obsolete/transitory/useless information in large quantities, unknown file extensions, obvious policy violations, etc. Significant headway is made into the management of data.

Unfortunately, no one higher than the grade of a Colonel has acknowledged the tremendous strides made by this records collection project.Records management requires upper management support, regardless of whether the team sits in the corporate world, academia or our wonderful military. As a military kid and an avid listener of CSPAN, I have a sneaking suspicion this team has saved more than one military professional from the potential discomfort of a Congressional hearing.

Congratulations to the Military Archives Round Table on their session. May it be the first of many.

Editor's Note: Mimi's coverage of the conference continues here.