Agencies struggling with maintaining electronic records

Federal agencies, including the agency in charge of government recordkeeping, are not ready to account for and maintain e-mail and word processing files as ordered by a federal court, said National Archives and Records Administration Archivist John Carlin on Monday.

Carlin said some agencies would take at least two years to inventory and devise plans for preserving digital documents, all the while facing bureaucratic and technological obstacles. For example, Carlin said, electronic records do not have ``the integrity and reliability'' that paper documents have and that are necessary for preservation.

Furthermore, Carlin said, even if agencies were able to catalog files within the next six months—- as suggested by NARA's Electronic Records Work Group but rejected by many agencies—- NARA would need at least four months to review the plans. The estimated 200,000 groups of records, called "schedules," that NARA would most likely review would increase archivists' workload by 30 to 40 times.

Several federal laws and policies outline agencies' responsibilities for keeping track of the documents that chronicle their activities. But because many government duties are now performed using electronic correspondence, historians and researchers want to ensure those records are kept for future research.Carlin made his remarks in a written statement accompanying the publication of the workgroup's final recommendations for how to comply with an April court order requiring NARA to devise by Sept. 30 a plan for how agencies would manage their electronic files (www.nara.gov/records/grs20/reprt914.html). Carlin said he agreed with the panel's recommendations.

But agencies will not have firm instructions for how to proceed with preserving or deleting digital records. A NARA spokesman said today that the draft of a bulletin on the subject that the agency plans to circulate for comment within the government by Oct. 9, will not have any force until it becomes final.Asked whether the report complies with the court-ordered deadline, the spokesman said it does ``if the judge was looking for a plan from the workgroup.'' A formal communication to U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman is expected later this week.

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