The Land Records Division in Fairfax County, Va., has achieved something quite remarkable. It has shrunk the amount of incoming paper records, thanks to a new computer system that allows the division to accept real estate filings electronically.

Already, the office that houses land records is in the enviable position of having too much room on its premises. Gone are the rows of shelves with bound books containing real estate documents dating back for decades. The office no longer needs them.

Fairfax and a handful of other counties that accept electronic real estate documents represent the future of government: all electronic, all the time. But others wonder if state and local governments are entering uncharted waters as public records increasingly become electronic. Paper records may be a nuisance when it comes to storing and retrieving them. But at least we know we can read them when we find them. That's not the situation when it comes to electronic records. The world of digitized information is awash with competing formats and incompatible standards that change as technology changes.

The Council on Library and Information Resources, a nonprofit group that supports ways to keep information accessible, predicts that future generations will know more about the Civil War than the Gulf War. Why? Because the software that enables us to read the electronic records concerning the events of 1991 have already become obsolete. Just ask the folks who bought document-imaging systems from Wang the year that Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Not only is Wang no longer in business, but locating a copy of the proprietary software, as well as any hardware, used to run the first generation of imaging systems is about as easy as finding a typewriter repairman.

The time and expense needed to keep up with the fast-changing digital world is enormous. For example, AIIM International, the industry group representing records and document management vendors, estimates the market for digital preservation is in the tens of billions of dollars. The pharmaceutical industry, which is contending with a mandate from the Federal Drug Administration to electronically submit new drug applications, has said that the cost of long-term maintenance of electronic records will far exceed what it spent on Y2K.

Within government, the situation is hardly better. The National Archives and Records Administration found that the quality of record-keeping practices among federal agencies varied considerably. For example, the dramatic rise in e-mail use has led to confusion concerning when an e-mail is a public record and when it's just a transitory document that can be disposed. Few can explain the difference in terms of public records when a low-level employee invites a high-level official to lunch via e-mail and the official accepts the invitation with a one-word e-mail that says, "Yes."

The growth in electronic records, coupled with the lack of knowledge on how to handle them, has created one of biggest challenges to federal records managers in recent memory. The same situation holds true in state and local government, where e-mail, real estate transactions and tax returns, to name just a few records that have become electronic, are proliferating at a rapid rate.

Just ask Hope Morgan, the director of information technology services at the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC), which oversees the state's oil and gas industry. She must ensure that the commission's technology doesn't fall out of step with its electronic records.

"We're constantly asking ourselves, 'How do we retain and access electronic records that must be stored permanently?'" she said. Along with keeping software in sync with the formats in which the records are stored, Morgan also worries about investing in enough storage hardware and software to keep up with the volumes of records.

Recognizing the Issue

Before answering those questions, Morgan says agencies need to recognize

Tod Newcombe  |  Features Editor