NARA plans electronic image filing rules

Just as federal agencies are grappling with how to manage their e-mail and word processing files, policy-makers are calling attention to preserving another category of digital records - images.

As agencies have moved to paperless business processes, they have created millions of pages of electronic images from scanned text, photographs, maps, engineering drawings and other graphical documents. Agencies will have to permanently preserve some of these files, although no federal guidelines are available to direct agencies on how to do this.

But the National Archives and Records Administration is preparing to propose some standards for document images, probably later this year. Spurred by the prospect of millions of pages of Defense Department documents that officials plan to turn over to NARA in digital form, archivists want to ensure that these records remain accessible to researchers.

A draft report circulated by DOD late last month suggests an answer will not come easily. The report, prepared by Lockheed Martin Corp., notes that although dozens of image formats are available, many commonly used ones are proprietary, and none are likely to be readable forever. Nevertheless, the draft recommends that NARA designate as standard those formats that "are likely to live longer than others."

"A lot of the stuff [agencies] are imaging is stuff that would traditionally come here," said Ken Thibodeau, director of electronic records programs with NARA. Although preserving the images, instead of the original paper, would not be a requirement, agencies or archivists may have reasons to keep them.

"We need short-term records [in electronic form] to be able to find, use and retrieve the information, so it is important for use in operations,'' said Burt Newlin, who is in charge of records-management policy for DOD. With at least half a dozen image formats in use in DOD, NARA guidelines would help ensure that image documents remain accessible, even if, like technical manuals, they are not destined for the permanent archives.

Meanwhile, military personnel records, used to settle veterans' benefits claims and for genealogical research, are kept permanently, and the electronic versions are easier to search. Furthermore, federal agencies that are declassifying 2 billion pages of Cold War documents are scanning the documents so that they are easier to process. Some of the records are expected to have long-term historical value and may be worth storing electronically.

For records managers in charge of maintaining their agencies' images, an important aspect of any future standard will be how much it costs to comply with it. John Paul Deley, the records officer with the Federal Trade Commission, said most of the images his agency produces are created for short-term convenience. "It speeds retrieval, but it's not the copy of record,'' he said. "The copy of record is still [the original] paper. Whether it's cost-effective to image some of this stuff for preservation in long-term format, I don't know.''

Lockheed Martin found that migrating to updated formats every three to five years could cost as much as it would to convert the originals to electronic form in the first place. "It all boils down to business analysis,'' said Bruce Evans, a consultant who has advised NARA on electronic recordkeeping policy. "If you've got a certain type of record that is accessed for 10 years and then accessed infrequently, [it may make more sense] to have microfilm stuck in a vault for long-term storage.''

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