Archivist warns of state and local records gaps
- By Daniel Keegan
- Apr 06, 2000
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
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
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
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
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 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.