Hope is not lost

The National Archives and Records Administration is in the unfortunate position of seeking a solution that could be years away for a problem that exists today. The situation is both worse and better than it first appears.

NARA, responsible for storing all types of government records, is steadily working to find a way to retain electronic documents when the software used to create them is no longer available. The Electronic Records Archive project is intended to ensure that vital components of the public record — for example, e-mail messages and word processing documents that show how decisions were made — are not lost for posterity.

A recent report by the National Academies suggests that an already daunting task is made more difficult because NARA, with its legacy of working with paper documents, lacks adequate technical expertise within its organization.

But this is no time for NARA bashing. Although the agency has known of the problem for years, the technology needed to devise a long-term solution simply has not existed. Some experts would argue it still does not exist.

However, there is reason for hope. The dot-com era, for all its failures, fostered a revolution in data management. As data began moving from system to system — in e-commerce, for example — organizations had to find ways to structure that information so that it had meaning outside its original application.

Such was the genesis of the Extensible Markup Language and other Web-based innovations, which may not provide the final answer but at least point in the right direction.

Another reason for hope is that NARA officials appear very much aware of the agency's shortcomings. And although the National Academies' report may have highlighted serious challenges, the recommendations align closely with the agency's existing strategy, NARA officials said.

The primary concern is that NARA and other agencies do not lose sight of what is at stake. Preserving the public record, whether in paper files or on floppy disk, ensures a measure of accountability that is a linchpin of democracy.

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