Archivist warns of state and local records gaps

From the White House to county courthouses across the country, managing

electronic records is becoming an archivist's nightmare.

As illustrated by the thousands of missing vice presidential e-mail messages,

capturing and preserving electronic records remains an inexact science.

Yet electronic records are as critical as their paper counterparts as evidence

in legal cases, for enforcing government accountability or for simply preserving

an accurate account of history.

The National Archives and Records Administration is designing an electronic

archive to preserve federal records that are produced in electronic formats — as most records now are. But preservation efforts at the state and local

level are haphazard.

Without greater efforts to develop electronic archives sized — and priced — for local governments, "there will be huge gaps in records," warned John

Carlin, archivist of the United States. "I fear there are gaps already,"

he told the House subcommittee on government management, information and

technology.

Congress is considering whether to extend the life of the National Historical

Publications and Records Commission, which provides financial support to

libraries and archives across the country, including grants for electronic

records preservation.

Carlin, who as the nation's Archivist is also chairman of the commission,

urged House members to keep the commission so it can continue its work of

preserving non-federal records.

"Without question, the greatest challenges facing the archival world today

are to identify and preserve long-term access to electronic records," said

Ann Clifford Newhall, director of the National Historical Publications and

Records Commission.

Since 1991, the commission has awarded $4.2 million to libraries and archives

for electronic records projects. And during the next three years, it proposes

spending more than $2 million to train more electronic archivists, Newhall

said.

One of the toughest problems for electronic archivists is keeping pace with

technology. Recordkeeping systems "may migrate to a new software/hardware

configuration as frequently as every three years," said Anne Gilliland-Swetland,

a professor of information studies at the University of California, told

the subcommittee.

The change often makes it difficult or impossible to read records that are

just a few years old, she told the subcommittee.

Cost is another problem. When financial support for maintaining electronic

records is cut, the records "instantly start to decay, sometimes disappearing

immediately," she said.

And the technical troubles are compounded by a severe shortage of archivists

trained to handle electronic records. There are "perhaps no more than a

couple of hundred individuals worldwide" who qualify as experts in electronic

records preservation, she said.

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