Q&A with Jim Nelson

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The Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives (KDLA) on Coffee Tree Road is the agency responsible for the management and preservation of public records in Kentucky. Cramped for space to store required public records, the KDLA staff had high hopes an $8 million building addition would be included in the new state budget since the addition had been on the Capital Planning Advisory Boards list of recommended projects. But the expansion isnt in the new budget. In his office with a beautiful view of the Capitol in the distance, a disappointed Jim Nelson, state librarian and commissioner of KDLA since 1980, talked with State Journal Staff Writer Charles Pearl on April 28 about what happens now.

Can you share your feelings about not getting funding in the states new budget for an $8 million addition to the Department for Libraries and Archives?

It is frustrating for us as an agency because we understand the importance of these records. In reality, we as a government only need to keep 3 to 5 percent of what we create. But that 3 to 5 percent is very essential for documenting government action, protecting the rights of citizens and ensuring continuity of government.

The state Archives has records from every branch throughout state government. Every county has a connection with it. So this is not a KDLA (Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives) issue or a state government issue. This is a history of the state of Kentucky issue and a safety issue in many ways for the people of the state. We just dont seem to be able to get the importance of that project through. Education Cabinet Secretary Virginia Fox was very supportive of it. It was ranked high and she spoke well of it. Unfortunately the governor didnt find it appropriate to put it in his budget. Then the House came back and did put it in the budget. But it didnt make it through the Senate budget, nor did it make it through conference committee. So now were looking at state records that need to be kept permanently and were going to have to devise a way to work with agencies to help them understand their responsibilities if we are not to have any kind of central facility.

Why do you think it didnt it make it through the Senate budget?

We dont know. There were a lot of projects that went through. This is an election year. All of the House seats and half of the Senate are up for election. People want to spend money back home. This would have been state bond funds. Thats a little different than some of the others. We realize its a competitive environment but we were ranked as one of the top priorities for the Capital Planning Construction Board. We had a lot of support, we thought. It just got into that competition for funding. (Our request) was just $8.5 million. In fact the House put in about $350,000 to repay the debt. We thought an annual commitment of $350,000 to protect the permanent records of the state was very affordable. We have gone through this several times and this is actually the cheapest project we have ever come up with. Its a new design that 34 different archival buildings have been using around the country. Its all 35 shelves high, 16,000 square feet. You have machines that go pick the records up wherever they are. Its very cheap storage and very cheap to build and could be built fairly quickly. We thought we had it all in order but it just didnt work out that way.

The problem is its a state government building. People dont view this as being my local university, my local library, my local school, where it is easier to get the money. I think its a problem of helping people understand that this really is their building. It belongs to all the people of Kentucky and is for the protection of their ongoing records.

Whats your next step?

Even though (state law) assigns us to be the central repository for permanent records, without a place to put them, we cant do that. But in any case, state agencies are required to keep these records that are determined by the state Archives and Records Commission to be of permanent value. So we will simply have to work with them to see how they can manage these, either in their own current facilities or through some other subcontracting. We just dont know yet. We are going to come up with a proposal and meet with the cabinet and then will go to the Archives and Records Commission for them to take official action. They have the ultimate authority on determining where these records will go.

Will you have to rent space somewhere?

We already rent space for the nonpermanent records. We have a records center out on East Main Street and another one on the Ancient Age (now Buffalo Trace) campus about 175,000 cubic feet of records in those two areas. This (Archives building) is strictly for those 3 to 5 percent, the permanent ones, and you really have to have climate control, security, and only access by people who are entitled to have access. Its not easy to rent that kind of space, plus we dont have any money to rent space with, either.

How much does it cost to rent the two places in Frankfort for nonpermanent records?

I want to say its about $130,000 a year.

Who will be most affected by this shortage of space?

The majority of the pain will be felt by the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC). About half of what we have are court records. About 78 percent of the research done here is done on those records. They are building new courthouses all over the state of Kentucky, and part of their strategy is to not build in long-term storage but just records that are only 25 years old or less, and send the rest to us. And now there wont be that capacity. There are a lot of court records older than 25 years and more are created every year.

However, they (AOC) are certainly not the only tenant. There are records from every agency from every branch of state and local government that we work with. So it will have a broad impact, but the courts will feel it the most.

What major services are provided in this building?

The public records. We have the Archives. We have a large micrographics service where we do about six million images a year. A few years ago we did get some capital funds to develop our Thomas D. Clark Imaging Center. So we do electronic imaging. We do from paper to microfilm to electronic and back and forth. We can create any format of the public record. We do maps and drawings. We have a library downstairs, through which we serve state government staff and agencies. We have the Talking Book Library, which the Braille collection relates to. Its an invaluable resource to people who cant read print materials.

How many years have you worked here?

It will be 26 years in September.

Whats going to happen in this field in the next 25 years?

I just attended a Public Libraries Association Conference in Louisville and there was a lot of discussion about that. One of the big issues were dealing with now is how to integrate the Gen X individuals. I sat next to someone a year older than my son, and he said a lot of them are not going to necessarily come to a library. This is going to be true in public records, too. They are not going to come to the clerks office. They are going to want to transact business online. And how we continue to assert the importance of making sure all of that stuff is authoritative the real stuff and still make sure people have access to those kind of services is going to be a major challenge. And were going to always be faced with the need to not only help people learn to read, but to help people love to read.

How are documents going to be preserved for the long haul? How long will microfilm last?

Microfilm is good for 500 years in some cases. But what is happening more and more is what we call worn digital. The problem is not how long it lasts its how long can you read it? We have to deal with migration of technologies, from one software to another, one platform to another. We have policies on how to do that, trying to preserve the full version of the document that were trying to preserve. Its not a matter of how long its going to last. The more electronic we are, its the matter of will we have access to it? And that means, can we read it? So theres a lot of backup necessary, and its getting smaller and smaller.

In the library business there is a large international database out of Ohio of about 60 million records. Its a very rich resource, and you can get that whole thing on an iPod. We used to go in and see rooms and rooms of computers to store that stuff on. And you can get that on something you can hold in your hand. Thats a big challenge for us. But were building library buildings. Our circulation is way up. People still need that local touch that place where they can sit down and look at a book. A lot of people dont know what to do with computers so they come to a library to learn how to use them.

Last year we had 125,000 kids in our Summer Reading Program. Thats the highest its ever been and it continues to grow. We think our job is going to be difficult. But we think, and were hoping people will understand the value of the library as a place as well as a service.

What do you think of the new Paul Sawyier Public Library under construction?

I havent had a tour yet. My wife (a school librarian) got a tour. The library is much needed. I walked the streets when we first passed the (library) tax in Franklin County. I had the door slammed in my face in some places where I wouldnt have thought that would have happened. But clearly the people of Franklin County have wanted it and needed it for some time. I think its going to be a real fine addition to the community and really anchor the downtown area. I think when the library is finished, people will be quite impressed.

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