Kitchen-sink NARA ruling does mean 'Save it all'
The demise of General Records Schedule 20 may have created a crisis for information
technology managers, but having to save everything--and I mean everything--presents us
with an interesting opportunity.
As I pointed out in my column "Court ruling will lead to broader records
storage" [GCN, Nov. 24, Page 27], GRS 20 was issued in August 1995 by the
National Archives and Records Administration to cover the disposition of electronic
The Naderite group Public Citizen and several other like-minded organizations sued NARA
over the fact that GRS 20 let agencies print out electronic documents, designate the paper
copies as the official record, and then delete the electronic files.
In October, U.S. District Court Judge Paul L. Friedman ruled that GRS 20 was null and
void. The "defendant agencies ... may not destroy electronic records created,
received, or stored on electronic mail or word processing systems pursuant to General
Records Schedule 20.''
The plaintiffs argued and the judge agreed that electronic records often have
"unique and valuable features not found in paper printouts of the records. ... For
example, records in electronic record keeping systems have searching, manipulating and
indexing capabilities not found in paper records.'' And "paper printouts of computer
spreadsheets only display the results of calculations made on the spreadsheet, while the
actual electronic version will show the formula used to make the calculations.''
And "some word processing systems allow users to annotate a document with a
summary or comments that contain information on the author or the document, its purpose,
the date that it was drafted or revised, and annotations by authors or reviewers. ...
Simply put, electronic records are rarely identical to their paper counterparts; they are
records unique and distinct from printed versions of the same record.''
You get the idea.
This presents all sorts of technical problems. As I wrote earlier, saving everything
involves archiving trivia--all those birthday, departure lunch and for-sale e-mails that
crowd the typical office. Sorting through and removing the trivia can actually damage some
electronic systems. Indexes and pointers could be irreparably damaged if great care is not
taken in eliminating nonrecords or general records. At best, their removal will take
considerable time for little if any benefit to the researchers who fought so vociferously
against GRS 20.
From here, we proceed quickly to the land of unintended consequences.
If the ruling is to be followed to the letter, NARA could easily become the No. 1
e-mail disaster backup site. That's because the lost functionality lamented by the
plaintiffs exists only in the context of the application package and, for that matter, the
operating system and hardware it ran on.
Authoritative evaluation of spreadsheets can be examined only using the original
spreadsheet software. More recent software can often convert the original file, but in
doing so can incorrectly translate the formulas and other behind-the-scenes features that
didn't carry over to a printout of the spreadsheet. If you've saved those 8-inch floppies
containing VisiCalc, you're in luck.
Think of what this could mean to historians and muckrakers. The late Adm. John
Poindexter's ability to create a back channel of communication to Col. Oliver North during
the Iran-Contra scandals of the Reagan administration could only be evaluated in the
context of the complete IBM Profs system in place at the time. It would be like trying to
interpret a paper roll recording of great Italian pianist Ferruccio Busoni without having
the right kind of player piano.
Thus by Judge Friedman's and the plaintiffs' reasoning, the electronic record must
include the application software and operating system, and maybe even the
So it follows that to ensure the integrity of the electronic record, we will need to
send NARA our application software, system software and hardware. How else will the
historians be able to run Profs and hundreds of other electronic systems now in vogue but
destined for technological oblivion?
We will need to add the right to archive computer hardware and software to federal
procurement regulations. And, of course, we'll have to build a few million square feet of
new storage buildings at Archives II in College Park, Md.
At long last, federal IT managers have a comprehensive solution to the disaster site
Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal information
management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page is at http://www.cpcug.org/user/houser.
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