Preserving the nation's history

The question of how to preserve the federal government's growing backlog of electronic documents and thereby its history has been thrown into chaos. Last month a federal judge threw out a regulation that allowed agencies to delete e-mail and word processor documents if paper copies were kept in storage. While printed copies of electronic communications may seem redundant it made some sense in a world where federal agencies - some still largely moored in a paper-based process - have yet to put into place electronic records-management systems. A paper-based copy did not preserve the "unique" qualities of an electronic file but at least it served as a record of the communique. But a good dose of reality and the recognition of the computer's major role in the business of government has turned that position on its ear and made life a lot harder for the National Archives and Records Administration the agency charged with preserving and maintaining federal records. NARA's strategic plan describes a 10-year process for developing - and helping agencies implement - standards for maintaining electronic documents. The recent court ruling makes this time frame untenable at best.

It is time to get serious about a federal electronic records policy. Past guidance has been described as hard to understand and has led to at least one agency blessing the mass destruction of all e-mail over 60 days old no matter what its nature. NARA driven by the weight of its sagging shelves needs to push federal agencies headlong into the Digital Age before the record of its journey is erased.

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