What did the Kaine administration know about the shootings at Virginia Tech five years ago and when?
Well, thanks to The Library of Virginia, we are starting to know the answer to that question, though it will be months before we have a bigger picture and we may never know all the answers.
Here’s what’s going on.
The Library has been the repository of a governor’s papers since Patrick Henry first held the office. Not that they can be sure they got every single record, and not that some transfers of records have all gone smoothly (paging Jim Gilmore), but Virginia citizens and historians can be thankful that for the most part, the Library’s archive of gubernatorial records is thorough, well organized and well maintained.
Governors before Tim Kaine were using email, and those records have been included in past transfers of records to the Library for sorting and archiving. What is different about the Kaine administration emails is that the Library has access not just the governor’s records, but to the email messages from the approximately 215 administration staffers, too. The entire staff used shared servers, which were then transferred to the Library.
But just how many email messages are we talking about then? Can you say 1.3 million?
Roger Christman is the gentleman who has been designated at the Governor’s records archivist. He’s been at it for years and, by his own admission, he still has a ways to go. “Some e-mail boxes are better organized than others; that’s one of the reasons why the review is taking so long,” he says.
He is quick to point out that the project as a whole is really the work of a team, not only of his Library colleagues, but also of the records managers in Kaine’s office. In particular, Kaine’s head of constituent services, Amber Amato, developed polices and procedures for how staff was to properly archive their electronic and paper records.
Notwithstanding Christman's modesty, it is his job to sort through these email records, tag them with helpful keywords, provide context where possible or necessary and to put them into a format that will be easily searchable and navigable to the average user.
Christman also has to review the records for their content: some records will be privileged or exempt from release. With each message he has to determine (a) is it a public record with a permanent retention, or (b) is it a restricted record.
“A significant number of e-mails are non-records and/or non-permanent records,” he explained. “For example, messages about going to lunch, personal issues, trying to schedule a meeting or announcing food in the break room are flagged as non-records.”
When Christman spoke at VCOG’s annual conference last October at Monticello, he said that he had to find the right balance between the public’s right to know and the respectful handling of the governor’s records. If he was careless in his review of the records, that might affect future governors’ willingness to transfer their records to the Library when their tenure ended.
And that’s one reason why the Virginia Tech emails are being released slowly. Many of the records are highly personal or sensitive. As Christman explained in his blog this week about three dozen or so administration emails from that fateful April day, “Records pertaining to the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shooting will not be opened until final resolution of all litigation relating to the incident. Some of these records may be kept confidential for longer in order to comply with the terms of the settlement agreements the Commonwealth accepted.”
But they are there. And there will be more. And you can read them for yourself and draw your own conclusions.
We all owe Roger Christman and all the archivists and IT folks at the Library of Virginia a debt of gratitude for helping preserve for us and future generations records of such an important incident, as well as the day-to-day operations of the long line of men (and maybe one day a woman!) who have governed the Commonwealth.