Digital Preservation Pioneer: Bill LeFurgy

Bill LeFurgy makes gentle stretching motions with his hands as he demonstrates how he exercises his cat’s legs every night. Clarence, his cat, just had hip surgery and LeFurgy has to serve as his physical therapist for the next two months. This routine, this new responsibility, comes at a time when he is about to let go of an enormous amount of responsibility elsewhere: he is retiring from the Library of Congress next week, capping 37 years of public service as an archivist, librarian and manager.

Bill Lefurgy

Bill LeFurgy

LeFurgy is an even-tempered man. Whether he is talking about Clarence’s ordeal or some crucial aspect of digital preservation, his demeanor is always calm and he seems relaxed as we sit at a table in a local coffee shop discussing his career. In contrast, the place is bustling; pop music echoes in the background, workers steam milk for espresso drinks. He cradles a coffee cup in his hands as he recalls his career path.

Like many people who work in digital preservation, LeFurgy is an accidental archivist. As an undergraduate, he studied history just for the love of it, with no clear plans for his future. He worked as a carpenter and fast-food restaurant manager for a few months after graduation while he mulled over possible directions. His next step was graduate school at the University of Maryland at College Park, where he got Master’s degrees in Library Science and in History.

While still in graduate school, he volunteered at the Maryland Historical Society to try archival work. One of his assignments there was arranging and describing the Clement Hill papers, which documented the life of a 17th-century Maryland landowner. “Those pieces of parchment and paper were spellbinding to me,” said LeFurgy. “They told about life during a very different time.” When a National Endowment for the Humanities-funded position as a manuscripts librarian opened up at MHS, he quickly took it.

The job melded LeFurgy’s interest in history with his new-found interest in preserving historical records and artifacts. He said, “What I always liked about history are the stories — stories about what people do, the situations they get themselves into and how they live their lives. Archives and manuscripts are a trove of those stories. It’s great. You get to read other people’s mail!”

He liked the relevance of the work, of adding value to the culture. He also liked having the specialized, valuable, fine-grained knowledge that enabled him to help researchers navigate and find information. For example, he talked fondly of working with the renown scholar of the Revolutionary War, Pauline Maier. ”All those hours working alone with papers are worth it when you are able to help someone like that,” he said.

After a year at MHS, he shifted to government archives by accepting a position at the Baltimore City Archives. Around 1980, he contacted the Baltimore Sun on a whim and proposed an op-ed article about local history. It was a bold move but the Sun accepted his proposal and he went on to write about a dozen columns for the paper. More important, in the process of writing the columns, he got his hands on his first computer. It was a revelation.

LeFurgy used the early IBM PCs in a Johns Hopkins library computer lab on which to write his columns. He deliberately sought out PCs because he had read about word-processing programs and how versatile they were. Although the Baltimore City Archives did have access to a Wang word processor, it was less than user-friendly. The PC, however, was much easier to understand. WordStar, a word processing program of the day, did everything he hoped and more.

Eventually LeFurgy was promoted to Baltimore City Archivist and Records Management Officer. He continued to think about the PC and its potential as a tool for his job, even though they were still uncommon in government offices. He takes some pride in convincing the legendary mayor of Baltimore, William Donald Schaefer, to authorize purchasing one of the first PCs for the municipal government. LeFurgy saw the PC as a means to an end, a tool to use as is for specific purposes. “I was more interested in narrative writing and database manipulation,” he said. He used the PC to run word processing and an early database program, DB II.

Billboard near the Oak Ridge, TN, Manhattan Project site, from Wikipedia

Billboard near the Oak Ridge, TN, Manhattan Project site, from Wikipedia

In 1985, after working for seven years at the Baltimore City Archives, LeFurgy was ready for a bigger challenge, so he accepted an appraisal archivist position at the National Archives and Records Administration, where he worked to determine which government records had permanent value.  Those were the early days of grappling with electronic records, and he volunteered to work with on some early projects.

“Not many people wanted to deal with datasets then,” LeFurgy said. “Data was so different than the paper case files and other analog records that most archivists were comfortable with. I was either bold or foolhardy enough to dive in and learn what I could.” He ended up bringing in a variety of scientific and social science datasets into NARA as permanent records and even gained recognition as something of an expert in acquiring and preserving database records.

LeFurgy’s job included evaluating records from many federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation, Securities and Exchange Commission and the National Park Service. But the agency that made the biggest impact on him was the Department of Energy. He traveled far and wide to DoE facilities to appraised their records dating back to World War II and the Manhattan Project. “I was initially taken aback in working with nuclear weapons documentation,” LeFurgy said. “But I quickly came to appreciate how valuable these records were for telling the full story about how our nation accomplished a colossal scientific and engineering feat. I was lucky enough to find unique caches of records in basements, warehouses and Quonset huts all over the country, and I did everything I could to get that material transferred to NARA.”

It was a unique time to be working with DoE records, as it turned out. The there was a growing interest in government accountability and transparency in connection with nuclear weapons research, testing and manufacturing. The agency itself was becoming more open to releasing information, and in 1991 LeFurgy took an archivist position with the department’s epidemiology staff with the goal of finding and preserving records relating to worker and community exposure to chemicals and radiation dating back to the 1940s.

It was while engaged with this work that LeFurgy got caught up in a government records-related media sensation. In 1994, stories emerged that the department and its predecessors had conducted human radiation experiments in which the government tested the effects of radiation on the bodies of unwitting subjects. LeFurgy was detailed to work the department’s (infectiously-named) Office of Human Radiation Experiments to assist the national Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments in tracking down related documentation. One of the outcomes of his work was that he helped create a searchable database of the records index, which he and his colleagues had the foresight to put online; 1994 was the cusp of the emerging commercial internet, so the database was one of the earliest searchable collections of government documents available online.

That experience was a high point in his career. LeFurgy was right in the middle of a historic event as it was being played out. By making the exposure-related records available, he met a high demand for crucial information. And that information had a more immediate effect on people than did any of his work up to that point. He said, “There’s a big difference between working with a handful of individual scholars who are interested in narrow aspects of things that happened a long time ago versus dealing with community members who think they or their families have been exposed to radiation. You want to help both of them, but the circumstances are vastly different. A few people may care about land holding in 1690 Maryland but lots and lots of people care about radioactive plumes over Denver. Some things that you do have a bigger impact than others.”

After a few years, the project wound down, and LeFurgy went back to NARA as a branch chief in its Center for Electronic Records. He continued his work doing records appraisal and developing online database search tools for collections such as the Vietnam Casualty Records. LeFurgy also did extensive work on the GAPS project, which was an effort to determine the extent to which agencies had transferred permanent records to NARA. “The GAPS work was really eye-opening,” he said. “It turned out that NARA was not receiving huge amounts of archival records — paper and electronic — that were scheduled to come in.”

Scene from an NDIIPP personal digital archiving outreach event, by wlef70, on Flickr

Scene from an NDIIPP personal digital archiving outreach event, by wlef70, on Flickr

After the turn of the century, he started looking for a new challenge and, in 2002, he joined the Library to work with the National Digital Information and Infrastructure Preservation Program. He expected that it might be another sweeping project like the Department of Energy radiation projects. “I guess I’m like a moth to the flame when it comes to big national programs to preserve information and make it available,” LeFurgy said. And NDIIPP was a bright flame indeed with its mission to collect, preserve and make available significant digital content, especially information that is created in digital form only, for current and future generations.

As a digital initiatives manager, LeFurgy helped launch the preserving state government digital information  initiative, which ended up working with 35 states to advance records preservation and access. He also worked on a variety of of other projects, including one of the first efforts to help the public preserve their own personal digital material. He traveled the world to share insights gained through the NDIIPP program and to help bring learning back to the Library. LeFurgy also played a key role in launching the NDIIPP social media platforms and this blog. It is to his credit that the steady flow of digital preservation information from the Library of Congress is so widely circulated.

Now, at the end of his tour of duty at the Library, he looks back with some evident pride at what NDIIPP accomplished. “In 2002, when I started with NDIIPP, people had just a vague awareness of digital preservation and little in the way of experience of doing it,” said LeFurgy. “The NDIIPP partners built out an amazing range of tools, standards and practices. All this is a solid foundation that will help everyone continue to move ahead. I won’t say that we got everything right. The field was brand new and the Library itself was just starting to form a network of preservation partners. But we made a big difference for the good.”

On a personal note, LeFurgy has been my supervisor for years and I will miss him, as will the rest of my colleagues. LeFurgy — Bill — is a nice guy. He is a compassionate observer of humanity and he cares deeply about the nature of this work. And, after decades in the federal government, he’s adept at getting things done within a system. He supported our individual strengths and offered the appropriate guidance when we needed it, trusting us to find and take on our share of the enormous volume of work to be done.

As he wraps up a career in caring for records and other documentation, he still looks forward to the obligation of caring for his lovely wife Lisa Weber and, of course, Clarence the cat.