For the Record
- By Heather Harreld
- Feb 06, 2000
In Ancient Greece, they hanged people caught destroying antiquities thought
to be records. Modern state and local governments, not quite so extreme,
protect public records with laws. Today, those paper-based laws are fast
becoming antiques themselves.
Existing laws stipulate that government agencies must maintain files
for all documents regarding government policies or actions. Meeting minutes,
reports, policy memos as well as a wide array of photographs, books and
other material generally qualify as part of the public record and must be
archived or destroyed according to strict guidelines.
Managing those records has become second nature for most government
agencies, but not so when it comes to the computer. Government employees
now routinely exchange e-mail as they develop policies or plan new projects.
When, if ever, should an e-mail message be treated as part of the public
record? What about electronic databases or notices posted on a government
World Wide Web site?
With the volume of digital information increasing each day, government
archivists are scrambling to draft policies that answer those questions
before critical segments of the public record are irretrievably lost.
"Electronic records management is the biggest problem faced by government
archivists and records managers today," said Bruce Dearstyne, associate
professor at the College of Library and Information Services at the University
of Maryland. "It used to be a record was something fixed, tangible. Electronic
information tends to be constantly changing and volatile. The traditional
consensus and definition of records don't apply."
Preserving digital records seems simple: Use the storage capabilities
intrinsic in information technology. But for records managers working in
a new environment where a record can be created and deleted with a single
keystroke, electronic records management is not about the technology, it's
about the people.
"In government, there are lots of people who believe the term "personal
computer' means the information on their computer is theirs personally,"
said Gerry Handfield, state archivist and director of the Indiana Commission
on Public Records. "There are people in the technology world who believe
that e-mail is not a record. People in the policy world believe e-mail is
a record that needs to be managed."
Most local government agencies are looking to state policymakers for guidance
in electronic records management — particularly in Delaware and New York.
Both states are encouraging their agencies to incorporate electronic recordkeeping
requirements into new system development and purchases.
New York archivists are working closely with the state's Office for
Technology to integrate records management policy into their requirements
for new systems purchases. Alan Kowlowitz, manager of electronic records
services with New York's Archives and Records Administration, said this
type of partnership is key to ensuring that state technology staffers consider
"We need to present our issues in a language that is understood by the
technologists and the people who run government programs," Kowlowitz said.
"It becomes extremely difficult to implement records management requirements
once systems are developed. Records issues are part of the general mix of
business issues that need to be considered when systems are implemented."
Delaware officials used a 1992 University of Pittsburgh study detailing
functional system requirements for maintaining evidence in electronic recordkeeping
systems to guide their policy work, said Timothy Slavin, strategic consultant
with the state's Office of Information Services.
As a result, the state in 1998 issued a "best practices" list for agencies
to consider when implementing new systems. The guidelines require that systems
create records for all business transactions that fall under an agency's
records management policy. In addition, it must be possible to export
records to other systems without changing the data.
"A lot of systems come up live and are thought to be a paperless process,"
Slavin said. "The trail of paper still follows it. Some declaration has
to take place that says, "The official copy is the electronic copy in the
The state is launching a project to show how data on existing systems
can be rescued and stored as records.
Protecting the Legacy
Most states are developing policy to preserve records stored on legacy
systems and those generated via e-mail.
Mississippi has developed a concept called "conditional scheduling"
for databases, said Patricia Galloway, project manager of the electronic
records initiative for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
Officials negotiate conditional schedules with agencies detailing what
information will be retained, why it will be retained, how it will be preserved
and when it will be preserved, she said. The schedules specify retention
periods and how an agency will handle database migration.
"It will be there to be renegotiated at any time the agency wants to
do it a different way," Galloway said. "We're trying to work out a way in
which stuff can be handed over to us but still can be under the control
of the agency if they want it to be. Everybody says [databases are] so big
and so visible that nothing is going to happen to them. Yeah, right."
Washington uses its paper-based records legislation for electronic records,
said Phil Coombs, the state's archivist. But several groups within the state
are working together to update that law to encompass electronic records
Officials are considering requiring state agencies to commit to a migration
plan for all electronic records that will need to be kept for more than
six years. That requirement would encompass 20 percent of all electronic
records generated by the state. The other 80 percent of data generated is
not considered to have archivable value and can be destroyed after six years.
A migration plan can be a commitment by agency management or a contract
with a vendor to provide migration services for the systems storing the
records so that they always can be retrieved.
You've Got Mail
Because it has become so ubiquitous to agency communications, the management
of e-mail that may contain record information is being folded into many
state government records policy.
Spurred by recent records requests from the media for access to e-mail,
Oregon has focused its electronic records management on it, said Roy Turnbaugh,
the state archivist. Under Oregon public records laws, the global backup
of e-mail and whatever e-mail is being managed are both considered public
"Because the e-mail has not been managed, the agency has had no alternative
other than turning over everything — the whole global e-mail file," Turnbaugh
said. "Electronic records should be managed on their content rather than
their physical form."
Electronic records fall into the state's general records retention policy
or, if they're unique to an agency, they fall under special schedules, he
said. The state has released general guidelines outlining how existing laws
apply to e-mail, but agencies are free to develop their own methods to
manage e-mail records.
"They need to put into place a procedure and make sure that everybody
in the agency is familiar with the procedure," Turnbaugh said. "It's had
mixed success. Agencies tend to be a little bit unclear of who really has
the authority in this area. We have to go out there and do some evangelizing."
E-mail guidelines can take a variety of forms:
* Wisconsin is allowing individual state agencies to choose what method
they use to retain e-mail based upon their own business needs, said Amy
Moran, IT consultant with the state's Division of Technology Management.
While one agency is saving all e-mail in a database, others are storing
only selected e-mail messages within a backup system, she said.
"We consider the information the record, regardless of the format,"
Moran said. "In our e-mail policy, we give some general guidance as to what
is or is not a record."
* Mississippi's draft electronic records management guidelines stipulate
that agencies adopt one standard schedule and one standard method to archive
e-mail, Galloway said. The guidelines suggest agencies develop a filter
to avoid flooding the system. The state archive plans to store all e-mail
from each agency together regardless of the schedule and apart from other
* Washington state officials are promoting the use of electronic folder
systems to store and manage e-mail messages that may be records because
e-folders most closely resemble the file cabinet of the paper-based world,
Coombs said. "If it was good enough to keep, it's good enough to put in
a folder," he said. "[But] if the folders contain legal information along
with "while you were out' notes, it's problematic."
* New York's e-mail guidelines advise agencies to set up electronic filing
systems to capture e-mail because the e-mail applications were designed
for communication not storage, Kowlowitz said. The guidelines suggest agencies
use version control measures to ensure the records are authentic and name
documents to make them easy to find. This filing system can be designed
with controls to prevent unnecessary duplication and to permit regular removal
of obsolete records.
* Indiana is experimenting with having employees assign a priority for
e-mail messages so those that need to be saved can be identified. "The problem
is that you and I can determine the priority on it and whether or not it
gets saved," Handfield said. "If you save everything, than you've got chaos.
Just the act of deciding that it's important e-mail is very time-consuming."
Agencies are also looking at authentication. Indiana officials have
warned agencies that they should assume that any electronic records they
create may be scrutinized before they are accepted as authentic, Handfield
Because electronic data can so easily be altered, these guidelines suggest
agencies build hierarchies of access and rights, — such as read-only and
write-only — into a system and use passwords, firewalls and encryption to
secure the stored records. In addition, agencies are encouraged to create
audit trails with automatic date and time stamping and to maintain logs
identifying who had access to what records and when.
Most state archive agencies have not traditionally had enforcement authority
over public records issues. In the paper-based world, they really didn't
need it because agencies benefited from requirements to sort the massive
amount of paper they generated, identify what was important and ship those
records off to the archiving agency for storage.
In the digital world, however, recordkeeping often means more work.
So states are looking for ways to enforce their policies.
Mississippi officials may soon propose legislation to enforce electronic
records management guidelines. They also are considering having the state
auditor's office do performance audits and plan to work with the state's
central IT agency to monitor compliance for databases.
New York uses guidelines for its records management grants program to
spread its policy to local governments, Kowlowitz said. Each year, the state
awards $7 million to local governments for records management improvement
efforts. In addition, New York has set up field offices in every region
of the state to provide records management advisory services to local governments.
— Heather Harreld is a free-lance writer based in Cary, N.C.