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Library Of Virginia Harnesses AI To Tackle Gubernatorial Emails

Roger Christman sometimes feels like he’s living in 2008.

As the governor’s records archivist at the Library of Virginia, it’s Christman’s job to sift through emails from past governors to screen out personal information and the inevitable clutter. He’s currently still going through the emails of now-Sen. Tim Kaine, whose term as governor ended in 2010, getting to know the quirks and senses of humor of administration officials who left their posts over a decade ago.

Christman has mastered the art of a quick scan, even if the task feels like something out of The Office.

“I got pretty good after a while,” Christman said at a library presentation on Tuesday. “I can do about 200 to 300 in an hour.”

Artificial intelligence helped cut Christman’s workload, but he’s still got almost 17 million electronic records left from Kaine as well as their successors, Bob McDonnell and Terry McAuliffe.

The slow pace has irked some lawmakers, who came close to passing a bill last year that would have required the library to process the emails within a year of receiving them.

“With technology being as advanced as it is today, we owe it to taxpayers to use all of the tools at our disposal to operate a government as transparent as possible,” said Republican Speaker of the House Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) when the bill passed in the House of Delegates.

 

 

The legislation, which was sponsored by David Suetterlein (R-Salem) in the Senate and Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) in the House, passed both chambers with near-unanimous support but ultimately died in conference negotiations between the House and Senate. Republicans were in part motivated by a possible presidential run by McAuliffe; the Democrat later ruled that option out but has sidestepped questions about a second run for governor.

Susan Gray Page, the digital archives coordinator at the library who also helped introduce AI to the process, says meeting the demands of the bill would require $1 million in new funding.

“We fully support transparency, but the reality just doesn’t support what the legislature is asking for,” Page said.

The library currently relies on volunteer time from the company behind the AI; paying the company would speed up the process. Post-recession budget cuts also slashed the number of staff working on the project. And there’s nothing in the law that requires the library to make the gubernatorial emails available online, according to Page.

“That’s our own initiative because we think that online is the future,” she said. “We want people to be able to access these records from anywhere.”

Even if the library gets the funding its looking for next year, future challenges await. Ralph Northam and his successors use Gmail accounts, whose unlimited storage could bring billions of fresh emails to the library’s digital doorstep.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mis-stated the number of emails in the library's backlog.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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