Electronic info dominates George W. Bush's archive

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Archivists responsible for putting together the presidential library of former President George W. Bush are tasked with processing 80 terabytes of electronic information — 20 times the Clinton administration's four terabytes.

Bush's electronic archives contain more than 200 million e-mails, compared with about 20 million in former President Bill Clinton's. Bush's archives also include share drives, hard drives, scheduling systems and digital photography, which his administration switched to about halfway through his tenure.

The average size of a quality digital photo is about three megabytes, meaning just one terabyte can store more than 300,000 such pictures.

The Bush administration e-mails alone would take up an estimated 600 million printed pages, said Alan Lowe, director of Bush's presidential library and museum. Combined with 70 million paper documents, the haul far eclipses the 550 to 580 million printed pages Lowe estimates are in all other National Archives' presidential libraries.

"In the old days, the National Archives went in and packed up trucks and trucks full of paper," Lowe said.

The preponderance of electronic files presents new challenges, ranging from dealing with the sheer volume to ensuring consistent redacting of information in an e-mail chain that may have been sent back and forth dozens of times.

Lockheed Martin Corp. has created the Electronic Records Archives system for the National Archives that is specifically designed to preserve the federal government's digital records. Lowe said the system was designed to ensure digital files will be accessible as computer programs evolve.

"It's not dependent on any sort of operating system that we're using right now," he said.

Bush archivists already have the ability to search the system and retrieve documents. Now they must begin processing the data, reading through each document to decide what might need to be redacted for personal or national security reasons. They'll also put even more specific topic designators on each document to make them easier to find.

On Jan. 20, 2014 — five years to the date after Bush left office — citizens will be able to request access to his administration's archives through the Freedom of Information Act. Lowe said in anticipation, archivists already have started processing the administration's paper records and will start on electronic files in the next year, when the new system has finalized redacting capabilities.

Lowe said processing all the records ultimately will take decades, but some records also will be handled as requests come in.

"It's going to take a long time," Lowe said. "I have no idea the number of years."

It's slow-going even without a wealth of electronic files. National Archives' staff noted in an article in the "The Public Historian" that Ronald Reagan's presidential library only processed about 9 percent of its records in the five years after he left office, while George H.W. Bush's got through about 7 percent.

Presidential archives in any form offer insight into an administration and can shed light on how policies developed, said Bruce Buchanan, a government professor specializing in presidential studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

"If you assemble these archives and interpret them carefully you can come to understand how a president makes decisions," Buchanan said.

But he said e-mail is new enough that until the archives can be accessed, it remains difficult to say how much additional insight can be gained from them. Much also will depend on researchers' patience.

"It's going to take lots of sifting and interpreting," he said.

Former Bush adviser Karen Hughes said although they were told in initial staff meetings that all correspondence eventually would be public, "it's not something you think about every time you send an e-mail."

Still, she said, the most important conversations and decisions took place in face-to-face meetings with the president.

The George W. Bush Presidential Center — including the library, museum and a policy institute — is set to open in February 2013 on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Until then, the archives are being kept at a large warehouse in the Dallas suburb of Lewisville. Aside from electronic and paper files, the archives also will include about 42,000 artifacts ranging from the bullhorn Bush used when visiting ground zero days after Sept. 11, 2001, to extravagant gifts from other heads of state.

The archives will include records from everyone who was part of the Executive Office of the President, but don't expect to see e-mail from Bush himself. The former president said during an interview at Facebook's headquarters earlier this month that he didn't use the technology.

"I didn't want any of those (e-mails) to be mine," he said. "The problem is that if you were to read some of my e-mails today you can read anything you want into them."

George W. Bush's presidential library will be the 13th overseen by the National Archives and Records Administration; the first was President Herbert Hoover's. Some earlier presidents have libraries that aren't part the National Archives' system and other presidential records are kept at the Library of Congress, Lowe said.

The Presidential Records Act, which designates administration records as public property rather than giving presidents legal ownership, came about after the Watergate scandal and President Richard Nixon's attempts to keep his papers and tape recordings. It first applied to Reagan.