Automation in the U.S. Government, 1966: A Look from One Agency

Today’s post is written by David Langbart, an Archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives at College Park.

As we approach the third decade of the 21st Century, almost all U.S. Government processes and recordkeeping are handled electronically.  Automation began during World War II, expanded with the advent of computers after the war, and progressed slowly through the years.  Most early electronic records, then generally referred to as machine-readable records, were in the form of databases, later moving into text files, and still later into the world of word processing and email.  While early on much of the automated data processing focused on administrative systems, some significant operational activities became automated.  This was especially true in the scientific agencies.

Congress, of course, was interested in the use of automation both for its impact on government services and activities and because of the cost.  In 1966, the Subcommittee on Census and Government Statistics of the House Committee on Post Office and Civil Service planned to hold hearings on electronic data systems.  The subcommittee did not have time for every agency to testify and so asked some agencies to submit written statements for the records instead.  The Department of State was one such agency.  In response to the subcommittee’s request, the Department sent the following statement.[i]

Statement from Assistant Secretary of State Douglas MacArthur II to Congressman Robert N. C. Nix, Chairman Subcommittee on Census and Statistics, 6/27/1966, RG 59

Archival institutions did not show much interest in computer technology until the later 1960s, and then initially for cataloging and description, not as subjects of preservation.  For a discussion of the archival preservation of electronic records, as machine-readable records are now known, see: Bruce Ambacher, ed., Thirty Years of Electronic Records (Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, 2003).

[i] Source: Assistant Secretary Douglas MacArthur II to Robert N.C. Nix, June 27, 1966, file FSV 3, 1964-66 Subject-Numeric Files (National Archives Identifier 580618), Record Group 59: General Records of the Department of State.