Electronic records fight resumes

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

originals.

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."

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