Fate of e-records back in feds' court
- By William Matthews
- Mar 12, 2000
Thanks to the Supreme Court, the legal skirmish over the government's handling
of electronic records is finished. But the more difficult struggle to create
a national electronic archive has only begun.
Technology hurdles, budget battles and human nature all stand in the
way of building a smoothly functioning national electronic records storage
"In theory, we can do what needs to be done," said Michael Miller, director
of the Modern Records Program at the National Archives and Records Administration.
But it will take at least several years, and the problems are daunting,
The Supreme Count last week declined to hear the case of Public Citizen
v. Carlin, ending the public interest organization's legal effort to force
government agencies to save all electronic records, including e-mail messages.
Public Citizen had sued the government over the Archives' electronic storage
policy that allowed agencies to delete certain electronic records as long
as paper copies were printed and saved.
But with an avalanche of electronic records being created by government
agencies, Archives officials have said building an electronic records archive
is a top priority. Government recordkeepers and their adversaries at Public
Citizen have the same goal: Create an archive that makes electronic records
easily accessible and searchable, Miller said. But the advocacy group and
the Archives differ on how fast the system can be built.
Since 1996, when Public Citizen filed suit, the Archives and other federal
agencies have developed much greater awareness of the importance of electronic
records, said Michael Tankersley, Public Citizen's lead lawyer in the case.
The Archives has written guidelines for preserving electronic records, and
even developed prototype hardware systems for storing them "largely as a
result of the lawsuit," he said.
"Some would say Archives wouldn't have moved if [Public Citizen] hadn't
kept jabbing us in the rear," Miller said. "But others would say we put
a lot of money into legal defense that could have been put into" building
an electronic archive.
The impediments to creating an electronic archive are many and complex,
from designing an archive system specifically for electronic records to
training the federal work force how to handle, store and ultimately archive
them. There is also the matter of developing the technology capable of running
a massive electronic records system and persuading Congress to supply a
budget to pay for it, Miller said.
So far, much of what the Archives has done with electronic records has
been based on how it stores paper records, he said. But electronic records
are substantially different.
To make paper records easier to find, archivists are taught not to
create file folders of records that are more than a half-inch thick. Thin
files are easier to sort through.
But electronic records are not searched by hand, and become harder,
not easier, to search when stored in multiple subdirectories, which is analogous
to creating thin folders. New storage practices should be created for electronic
archives, Miller said.
Those who create electronic records need to develop new approaches to
electronic storage. Systems designed to create and manage electronic records
have met with "user resistance," Miller said. People balk at the extra work
of filling out forms to identify documents as records. "There is research
to reduce that to a minimum, but without worker cooperation, records may
be created and never preserved as records," he said.
Despite the difficulties, Miller said, the Archives hopes to have an
electronic records archive "relatively ready to go" in 2004. But it is unlikely
that there will be a full-service system that soon.
Federal agencies create records on many different computer systems using
a wide variety of formats and keep them in a multiplicity of storage systems.
No one has figured out yet how to convert them to a common system or how
to create a search mechanism that's able to work with all the formats.
The capability to conduct a comprehensive search of electronic records
even of a single agency "is quite a ways out," Miller said.
And building a workable electronic records storage system for the Archives
solves only a small part of the government's electronic records problem.
About 5 percent of the federal government's records are sent to the Archives
for permanent preservation.
Most records remain with the agencies that create them, where they are
stored for several years or even several decades before being destroyed.
It may take federal agencies a decade or more to develop sound electronic
recordkeeping, Miller said.