NARA records executive tackles archiving in the Digital Age

Michael Miller the new director of records management programs with the National Archives and Records Administration has spent his career looking for technology that can keep pace with history.

For years Miller has grappled with the numerous historical and legal records created through federal agencies' databases simulations and word processing programs. Because agency systems are not designed to preserve these files for posterity Miller has found he must employ newer technology to meet the archiving challenges posed by automation.

Although he has held his job slightly more than two months he has spent more than half of his career tackling electronic-records management issues at NARA and the Environmental Protection Agency. During those years some electronic-records preservation problems Miller faced had decidedly low-tech solutions he said. When he was helping the Bureau of Economic Analysis archive old computer models seven years ago "there was no good solution other than printing out the code and keeping it in hard copy " he said. "You had shelf after shelf of computer code."

Since then however historians and journalists backed by court rulings have pressured NARA to find computer-based preservation methods. In one pending case plaintiffs have charged that by saving only printouts of files agencies are destroying critical data that can only be obtained from the digital version.

Part of Miller's job is to develop a records management policy for the government that will maintain the richness of computer files along with the information they contain about transactions database queries annotations and links to other documents. "There are hopefully some technological solutions " he said adding that it could be "a couple of years" before they are developed and deployed.

Miller did not imagine he would be pondering the future when he was earning a doctorate in medieval German history in the mid-1970s. "Who wanted to be a bureaucrat when you could be an academic?" he thought then.But he ran out of money for his studies at Ohio State University and in 1976 he took the civil service exam so he would have the option of getting a government job. NARA called and he signed up as an archivist because Washington D.C. was one of the places he thought he would like to live.

He later completed his degree but he stayed with the government. In 1984 he went to work for NARA's Machine Readable Records Branch the predecessor to the agency's Center for Electronic Records. In 1990 he moved to the EPA where he stayed until assuming his current position in January.

As Miller delved more deeply into electronic-records management the topic held his interest because it satisfied his "theoretical bent " he said. He noted that archivists today are struggling with such broad questions as when to preserve the format of documents along with their text which transactions in a database constitute a record of how the system was used and how to ensure that data produced today can be read decades from now.

Miller said he accepted his present job because it offered him the opportunity to do something he has always wanted to do - devise a comprehensive strategy for managing records in the modern computer-equipped office. But he said he must remain cautious not to let his theoretical bent run too far afield. "I have to keep reminding myself that I have to be practical " he said.

While noting that "nobody wants to print paper anymore " Miller added that no one will use a system that is difficult or time-consuming to operate either.

He anticipates that Defense Department software tests slated to begin at Fort Huachuca Ariz. this summer will result in a set of commercial products that agencies can use "as the basis for a record-keeping system." DOD will review these solutions for conformance to its own electronic-records management guidelines but Miller and other NARA officials think those guidelines could also be appropriate for other agencies.

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