@Info.Policy: NARA leaves leadership up to the marketplace

Robert Gellman

For years, the National Archives and Records Administration has been an easy target because of its lack of leadership in preserving electronic records. Until recently, it was telling agencies desperate for guidance to print out the records and toss the electronic versions.

Signs of progress have emerged, however. NARA recently said it would accept documents for permanent storage as Adobe Portable Document Format files.

PDF documents are all over the Net, including federal Web sites. PDF preserves the original look and feel of a document, no matter what computer, operating system or software you use to view it. HTML can't match that.

What seems to have happened is that the marketplace made the decision for NARA. PDF became ubiquitous because it solves formatting problems and because of Adobe's brilliant design and marketing decisions. The PDF standard is open, and Adobe's Acrobat Reader is free. That's why putting a document in PDF is such an easy decision. Everyone can read it.

Of course, preserving documents for the future is more complicated than just saving them as PDF files. Some neat PDF capabilities interfere with long-term storage. For example, documents with passwords, encryption or embedded executables are likely to become tough to process within a couple of decades. Enhancements to the PDF standard could add more features useful to everyone except archivists.

The response by the archival world has been to set a special standard called PDF/A. Several nonprofit organizations are working for its adoption by the International Standards Organization. That's good because the more universal any archival technology is, the more likely it is to survive. It's a classic self-fulfilling prophecy.

For all its virtues, PDF is not a complete archival solution. It's just a piece of the puzzle. But PDF has the look and feel of a useful, long-term measure that solves problems for agencies as well as archivists for the foreseeable future.

What NARA is saying by accepting PDF documents is that it's finally willing to make some choices. For now, just following the market passes for leadership at NARA.

Whether PDF will really be around in a hundred years is impossible to say. The issue isn't PDF or any specific technology'NARA must give agencies guidance today. We can't wait for the perfect solution to emerge.

If I have an objection to PDF, it's that the documents are slow to load. That's pretty much the same objection I have to NARA's electronic preservation activities. PDF will surely improve over time. I would like to be able to say the same thing about NARA.

Robert Gellman is a Washington privacy and information policy consultant. E-mail him at [email protected].


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