Nearly everyone knows documents are increasingly "born digital" — and often are never even used in paper form. But not everyone realizes that digital documents constitute public records.
Some of those records are only trivial in value, while others may be needed for a few years. But a very small portion is of enduring value, important to the "life of the Republic." Judgments about which records are trivial and which are substantive are critical.
Serious human rights and public accountability issues are at stake for the government and the public. Indeed, Eduard Mark, an Air Force historian, wrote in an April 24 online discussion with other historians that the system to maintain federal records has "collapsed utterly."
"It will be impossible," he continued, "to write the history of recent diplomatic and military history as we have written about World War II. Too many records are gone, and with [them] public accountability of government and rational public administration."
The National Archives and Records Administration and other federal agencies face growing difficulties keeping up with the escalating creation of electronic records — word-processed documents, presentation slides, e-mail messaging, Web sites and other newer forms of electronic records — because traditional processes, technologies and skills for maintaining paper records are inadequate.
A recent survey revealed that records managers believe that agency heads, legislators, journalists, auditors, lawyers and historians need and use records. Yet those same managers do little to publicly foster support for sound recordkeeping practices.
are far-reaching. If implemented, the practices could change how and when
records are captured and transferred to
The example of
record transfer illustrates the potential impact of the new plan. For decades,
agencies have transferred archival records to
recordkeeping is found lacking,
The shift also represents a turnaround for some NARA professionals, who in the past have been less than enthusiastic about taking early physical custody of agency records because that would entail handling Freedom of Information Act requests. This is a logical point. The relationships between recordkeeping, security downgrading and FOIA management need to be revisited.
At least at the
Barry is a
principal of Barry Associates in
Archives and Records Administration has taken strides
to deal with electronic archives, an effort I discussed in a column last week.
An important part of this redesign effort is the Electronic Records Archives
The ERA program
has significant technological implications and challenges. In terms of
complexity and cost, it is undoubtedly the largest system
The system will
capture, preserve and maintain control of and ready access to records deemed to
be of continuing value and interest to "the life of the Republic."
This will be done in a way that will retain the records' integrity and protect
them from natural and man-made disasters, such as what happened to the
the technical issues,
All of those
disciplines will be needed in addition to the traditional archival, records
management, conservation and preservation personnel who are
NARA might well
consider employing the services of former senior systems acquisition and
project managers from the Pentagon, or even outsourcing this function to the
Defense Department, which has considerable in-house experience and a long
history of working on projects of this scale. Then again,
The system also faces major technological hurdles. Today some of the most important decision-support documents are in the form of multimedia computer slide presentations and spreadsheets, which have assumptions embedded within the electronic version that are not easily amenable for printing out. The problems related to saving such important types of records are typically not addressed, and so the records are lost.
Other relatively new technologies that are already producing enormous amounts of uncaptured records are e-mail, videoconferences, Web sites, and call centers and other "customer-facing" audio systems, while Web log, instant messaging and geographic information system technologies are emerging as potentially large producers of records. Documents produced using such tools must be maintained in an integrated fashion retaining their mutual context.
The Office of Management and Budget called for the implementation of e-government, citizen-centric solutions and the massive enterprise resource planning systems used to integrate disorganized, duplicative, stovepipe financial and human resource systems. These record-making systems are not recordkeeping systems.
One solution for
at least some types of records, though not without its own problems, is the
migration approach employed in the persistent archives project that
Barry is a
principal of Barry Associates in