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Think Your Inbox Is Jammed? Bush Library Sorts Through 200 Million Emails

This is the third installment in the KERA News series "Inside the Bush Center."

The new George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas has thousands of artifacts on display. But it also has the largest collection of electronic records of any presidential library. That means hours and hours of video, 4 million photographs and 200 million emails. 

Preparing a presidential library has typically meant sifting through thousands of boxes filled with old papers. And for Bush Library archivists, that’s no exception. But this time, they have a new challenge: sifting through massive hard drives containing a total of 80 terabytes -- that’s eight times the entire print collection of the Library of Congress.

Brooke Clements is supervisory archivist with the National Archives and Records Administration. It’s her job to preserve and review the former president’s electronic treasure trove – which means someone reads through each and every file to decide what to redact for personal or national security reasons.

“We’re now estimating an email is five pages long or so,” she says. “So that means our 200 million emails would be a billion pages or so of paper!”

The new presidential library is large, but not big enough to store that much information. So instead, archivists are turning to the web – where they can post unlimited amounts of video, digital photos and documents. The library already has some online.

There are digital photos of the former President, and videos – in fact, an entire gallery devoted to Barney and Miss Beazley – yes, the Bush’s beloved black Scottish Terriers.

While the videos accessible online weren’t particularly controversial, displaying other electronic files like emails is more controversial. Researchers who want to dive into the email gold mine will have to wait until January to request access. That’s because presidential records aren’t available to the public until five years after a president leaves office, when the Freedom Of Information Actkicks in.  

David Gewirtz, author of Where Have All the Emails Gone?, explains those 200 million are actually only a fraction of the messages sent by the Bush administration. The only emails that are delivered to archivists are the ones sent through official White House accounts.

“President Bush’s interaction with email was ‘I’m not touching it!’ period,” Gewirtz says, “because [Bush] believed his statements in a casual manner would be misinterpreted. So he just completely avoided using email. On the other hand, his staff used email tremendously.”

So, while the library won’t have emails from Bush himself, you could see discussions between advisers, staffers and secretaries. Historians could analyze those emails to find out what went on behind the scenes during the eight years Bush was in office.  But researchers will have to be patient; it’s going to take decades for archivists to sift through those virtual mountains of electronic data. 

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.