Electronic records fight resumes
- By William Matthews
- Nov 02, 2000
The struggle to get the government to preserve electronic records in electronic
form is on again.
Fifteen months after losing a battle in federal court, the public interest
organization Public Citizen is taking the fight to the U.S. archivist himself.
In a petition to Archivist John Carlin, Public Citizen charges that
the National Archives and Records Administration and other federal agencies
are failing to live up to promises they made to the U.S. Court of Appeals
about the "content, structure and context" of electronic records.
The petition asks Carlin to strengthen the requirements and enforcement
of General Records Schedule 20 so that valuable data in electronic records
does not continue to be lost.
GRS 20, which contains key rules on electronic records, does not require
that electronic records be kept in electronic form. Instead, it permits
agencies to print copies of electronic records and delete the electronic
Public Citizen has opposed GRS 20 for years, arguing that printing out
electronic records does not preserve some key electronic elements, such
as descriptive information, annotations and hyperlinks.
A U.S. district court sided with Public Citizen in 1997, but an appeals
court overturned that ruling in 1999. In March, the Supreme Court declined
to take up the matter, effectively upholding GRS 20. However, the 1999 ruling
handed Public Citizen a partial victory. It required that when printing
copies of electronic records, agencies must preserve all of their elements — the content, structure and context.
Agencies, including the Archives, have not been following that requirement,
said Public Citizen lawyer Michael Tankersley. "The archivist's current
regulations contribute to the creation of a black hole or gap in the historical
record," he said.
He also asks that GRS 20 be phased out and replaced with a records preservation
rule that requires that "electronic records most likely to be worthy of
preservation" be saved in their electronic form. And Tankersley urges that
agencies consider adopting office systems that automatically begin archiving
procedures as records are being created.
A lawyer at the Archives said the agency is still reviewing the "massive
document" Public Citizen sent Carlin. "We will review it carefully and respond
in a reasonable period of time."