The archivist's dilemma

Thomas R. Temin

If anyone is in the hot seat these days, it's John Carlin, the nation's archivist.

Few issues confronting the federal information technology community are more convoluted than electronic record-keeping. Recently the

General Accounting Office chided the National Archives and Records Administration for not having a handle on how agencies go about general record-keeping, much less the management of electronic records. Simultaneously, NARA is involved in a legal war over its policy of letting agencies print and delete electronic records'albeit a war in which NARA happened to win the most recent battle.

Three things make archiving electronic records difficult.

First'and this is the basis for the legal challenge to NARA's policy'is that electronic records possess qualities that paper records do not. Second, electronic storage media become obsolete. For example, you would have a hard time finding a way to read an 8-inch floppy disk.

Smart indexing and regular technology upgrades can solve these two issues. Look at how the music industry has preserved'even enhanced'priceless old recordings by transferring them to new formats.

The third issue is much tougher: The very nature of what constitutes an electronic document changes often and radically. It is this issue that will prove most nettlesome in coming up with a cogent policy for electronic records preservation.

Electronic records are no longer merely computer-generated analogs to paper ones. At one time, an e-mail was typically a short ASCII document with a header containing routing information. A letter was a simple WordPerfect file.

Today, a document created using a multimedia software suite might include a block of text accompanied by or linked to spreadsheets and databases, image and sound files, and other documents on the Web. How do you archive this electronic conglomeration? How many links do you need to preserve?

It is unlikely that an answer satisfactory to everyone can be found. But you can bet that the difficulty of reconstructing an 18-minute gap in a recording will pale beside unraveling the trail of documents being created by the millions at this moment.

Thomas R. Temin

Editorial director

Internet: [email protected]


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