Saving the Constituent Services Data in Our Archives: Lessons from Congressional Papers

Oct 16, 2019

By Danielle Emerling, Assistant Curator, Congressional and Political Papers Archivist, West Virginia University Libraries

Since the 1990s, the U.S. Congress has been using electronic, proprietary systems to manage constituent interactions with Member offices. The systems include brands like iConstituent and Intranet Quorum, which likely sound familiar to archivists working in state government. When a Member of Congress leaves office, the data is exported from these systems – either as flat data files or relational databases with a library of attached records – and transferred to a repository designated by the Member. For numerous reasons, outlined in a 2017 report from the SAA Congressional Papers Section, the exported datasets have stymied repositories and remained inaccessible to both archivists and researchers. 

Over the last few years, however, congressional papers archivists have made significant strides toward a solution. West Virginia University Libraries developed an open-source data curation tool that successfully accessed and searched flat file format datasets. With the support of a 2018 LYRASIS Catalyst Fund grant, WVU Libraries led the America Contacts Congress project to study the feasibility of further developing the tool and implementing it at other institutions.

The feasibility study provided a better understanding of the data and its potential uses. Researchers studying things like Congress, representation, and public policy believe the data could be transformative to their scholarship. Archivists interviewed in the study said the data curation tool is necessary to their work, but rather than expansive functionality, it is more important for the tool to integrate with other systems used for curation, preservation, and data analysis. While the tool functionality should remain constrained, added functions should include rendering relational databases, generating reports, and searching attached correspondence. 

The study’s final report identified numerous next steps to ensure the data curation tool is developed and governed in a community oriented and sustainable way. Sustaining open-source software requires a committed IT community, so while open-source development will likely play a role, it is not the entire answer. The report urged consideration of a software as a service model, in which the tool would be hosted by a vendor, and a membership supported model. All of these models would benefit from a larger community base of data curation tool users.  

As we begin work to implement these recommendations, we are learning that CoSA members are among those also managing constituent services data in their archives. This overlap means that archivists working with congressional and state records likely have much to learn from each other and much to gain through collaboration. 

To learn more, visit the ACSC Constituent Services Data Task Force page or contact the author at danielle.emerling@mail.wvu.edu.

Image: Wall Street Journal



Category: Archives Month

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