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"Record challenges"

Nearly everyone knows documents are increasingly "born digital" — and often are never even used in paper form. But not everyone realizes that digital documents constitute public records.

Some of those records are only trivial in value, while others may be needed for a few years. But a very small portion is of enduring value, important to the "life of the Republic." Judgments about which records are trivial and which are substantive are critical.

Serious human rights and public accountability issues are at stake for the government and the public. Indeed, Eduard Mark, an Air Force historian, wrote in an April 24 online discussion with other historians that the system to maintain federal records has "collapsed utterly."

"It will be impossible," he continued, "to write the history of recent diplomatic and military history as we have written about World War II. Too many records are gone, and with [them] public accountability of government and rational public administration."

The National Archives and Records Administration and other federal agencies face growing difficulties keeping up with the escalating creation of electronic records — word-processed documents, presentation slides, e-mail messaging, Web sites and other newer forms of electronic records — because traditional processes, technologies and skills for maintaining paper records are inadequate.

NARA is addressing this crisis on several levels, particularly in its 2002 Redesign of Federal Records Management proposal and its Electronic Records Archives program.

NARA's initiatives face considerable challenge individually, but the even greater task will be to integrate those programs. In addition, the lack of public and executive attention to records and recordkeeping, an unwillingness to commit necessary resources — money, skills, training and technology — and the need to overcome entrenched organizational cultures also threaten records preservation.

A recent survey revealed that records managers believe that agency heads, legislators, journalists, auditors, lawyers and historians need and use records. Yet those same managers do little to publicly foster support for sound recordkeeping practices.

NARA cannot overcome such complex issues alone. Other agencies and Congress must do some of the heavy lifting. NARA's bold Redesign of Federal Records Management proposal would overhaul practices underpinning federal recordkeeping — practices derived from a paper-based paradigm developed at the time of the Archives' creation in 1934. According to deputy archivist Lewis Bellardo, NARA is moving ahead with plans to implement the proposal.

The implications are far-reaching. If implemented, the practices could change how and when records are captured and transferred to NARA, how they reflect core agency business aims and how they are appraised for long-term disposition, as well as the meaning and accessibility of records designated as permanent and how records can better serve public policy-makers.

The example of record transfer illustrates the potential impact of the new plan. For decades, agencies have transferred archival records to NARA 30 years after the documents are produced. Some get lost or mutilated along the way.

Under NARA's redesigned plan and new standard, agencies would transfer records at the time of their creation to NARA or a temporary or permanent NARA-certified, agency-level digital archive.

NARA also would shift from its 30-years-after-the-fact practice to a top-down, agency triage approach based on risk factors such as accountability or the extent to which records relate to human rights concerns. This strategy would help determine how much attention NARA should pay to different agencies.

Where agency recordkeeping is found lacking, NARA would provide technical assistance. This is an excellent approach but it requires a major refocusing of NARA's work. NARA also may need sharper teeth for the new role.

The shift also represents a turnaround for some NARA professionals, who in the past have been less than enthusiastic about taking early physical custody of agency records because that would entail handling Freedom of Information Act requests. This is a logical point. The relationships between recordkeeping, security downgrading and FOIA management need to be revisited.

At least at the top, NARA has strong incentives to redesign. The organization has begun the process, but it isn't clear to what extent the bulk of NARA staff or the subjects of NARA's mandate are excited — or if they even have it on their radar screens.

Barry is a principal of Barry Associates in Arlington, Va. He has worked as a consultant for several national archivists, including NARA.

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