NARA rethinks e-records

Proposal for A Redesign of Federal Records Management

Most of the federal government's file clerks are gone now. So are the file cabinets they presided over. And the deluge of paper records that the clerks dutifully filed has diminished.

They've all been replaced by computers, hard drives, backup tapes, electronic documents and e-mail.

Yet the policies for preserving records remain focused on paper documents.

Records management "has not kept up with a federal government that creates and uses most of its records electronically," admits the National Archives and Records Administration, the official keeper of the government's important records.

As a result, "a large majority" of valuable electronic records never make it to the "archival custody" of NARA, the agency concluded in a recent report.

Instead, "records that are essential to the government" accumulate in office computers, reside in agency tape libraries and often are lost when systems are replaced or shut down.

Records that should be kept to establish agency accountability, protect citizens' rights or "document the national experience" simply vanish, NARA says. And as the use of electronic records grows, the problem is likely to get worse, the agency says in a 46-page proposal for redesigning federal records management policy.

NARA's strategy is to focus on saving the most important e-documents, "knowing that we simply don't have enough resources to deal with all of the records," said Lewis Bellardo, U.S. deputy archivist.

To have a greater impact with its limited staff and budget, NARA's plan is "to try to engage the agencies more in records management," Bellardo said.

The records management reform plan stresses that "the creation and management of records is first and foremost the responsibility of the heads of agencies."

According to the reform plan, NARA should:

* Advise agencies on what to preserve, but not on how to preserve it.

* Offer records management guidance and training.

* Conduct inspections and evaluations.

"They're trying to do triage. They're overwhelmed," said Patrice McDermott of the American Library Association. "There's such a backlog of electronic records, this may be a reasonable direction — identify the highest-risk records and work on those."

But Michael Tankersley, a frequent NARA critic, called the agency's reform proposals "very abstract, very general. They identify a bunch of problems, but the course of action they propose doesn't offer any direct response to the problems."

By emphasizing the agencies' responsibility for records management, NARA seems to be "backing off rather than grappling with the problem," said Tankersley, who is senior staff attorney for the Public Citizen's Litigation Group.

Bellardo said NARA is not backing away from problems that some agencies are having with e-records management. Rather, "there will be targeted assistance given to specific agencies" depending on their needs, he said.

In one of its key reforms, NARA will expand the number of document formats it accepts from agencies, Bellardo said. At present, the variety of formats NARA accepts is limited. NARA also proposes to develop new guidelines to encourage agencies to avoid printing and permit electronic filing of some types of e-mail records.

The archivists also call for developing a new method for scheduling records, the process for determining how long records must be kept. The change would make it easier for agencies to dispose of "large aggregates of records," McDermott said.

Although that might clean up some of the electronic clutter, it also poses the risk of permanent loss of some information, she said. For example, agencies are publishing an increasing number of reports in electronic form only. Paper copies, which used to be delivered to depository libraries, are not made. Thus, when an agency deletes the report from its Web site, it may be gone forever, she said.

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E-Records Avalanche

Federal agencies crank out electronic records by the billions, and the National Archives and Records Administration must decide how to store them.

Here are just a few sources of all those records:

Military intelligence — More than 1 billion electronic messages, reports, cables and memos.

NASA — More than 20 terabytes of digital space science data and 7 terabytes from the Hubble Space Telescope, which adds 3G to 5G daily.

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office — More than 21 million U.S. and foreign patents and 2.7 million trademarks.

Department of Veterans Affairs — One database alone contains the medical and benefits records of 9 million veterans, which must be kept for 75 years.

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