Record-Breaking Dilemma

Electronic information is easier to manage than paper, right? Tell that to records managers and archivists.

by / June 4, 2002
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 that electronic records management is an issue that must be dealt with now, not down the road. Morgan did this by working with the commission's Information Management Services and the general counsel to identify key issues they had to address from a policy, management and technology perspective.

According to Susan Cisco, RRC's assistant director for information management services, the world of records management is finally moving in the direction of standards. She said the Department of Defense now requires that any vendor selling records-management technology to the Pentagon meet standards based on operational, legislative and legal needs.

Also, the ISO, the international organization for standardization, has released ISO 15489-1 for information and documentation of records management. The standard sets the parameters within which a records management program should be established, regardless of the size of the organization or the level of technology used. "Five years ago, no standards existed for records management," said Cisco. "Today, I'm happy there are two standards we can work from."

From the legal perspective, the Railroad Commission is concerned about setting policy for the retention of e-mail as a public document, according to Debra Ravel, a staff attorney with the commission's General Law Division. Ravel emphasized the need for standards for records management overall and for procedures to deal with e-mail in particular. "Our job is to make sure electronic documents, such as e-mail, are properly maintained because so many of our records are of interest to both the general public and litigators," she explained.

When it comes to records management, the content of the e-mail should determine whether it's a record or not, rather than the medium. That's how Minnesota spells out the general basis for e-mail records management. The State Archives has issued a series of guidelines for employees to follow as they review their electronic-records-management practices. These guidelines range from basic strategies to file naming, file formats, storage procedures, digital media options, as well as Web content policies, the distinctions between electronic and digital signatures and legal considerations.

Educating Employees

Like Minnesota, Virginia also stresses that a record's content, not the medium, is what matters when it comes to retention. And like Minnesota, Virginia is hoping that by educating its employees about sound records-management practices, it can avoid the problems that the federal government has run into with electronic records. "We have analysts assigned to state and local agencies to make sure they know what's going on in terms of retention schedules," said Robert Nawrocki, CRM, Virginia's electronic records coordinator.

From a technology perspective, the challenge for electronic-records managers is keeping a long-term view of where records management is headed, paying attention to what's happening with software and making sure agencies have a migration plan in place. "They have to watch out because software isn't always backwards compatible," Nawrocki explained.

And they have to budget for a continuous investment in keeping their records and technology in sync.

Nawrocki believes the state is doing fairly well in managing its electronic records, but he worries about what's happening at the local level, where adherence to policies and procedures is less uniform and where budgets are tighter, making it harder for cities and counties to maintain up-to-date standards for retaining records in an accessible format.

Another concern at the state level is the proliferation of Web-based transactions, as well as documents, that may not be recorded according to state policies, or retained as a public record. "We need to capture those transactions as they happen," urged Nawrocki.

Finally, there's the constant nightmare that somehow today's spreadsheets and documents -- whether they are in HTML or PDF format -- may not be accessible or readable 25 years from now. Will we end up with a gap in our public records due to shortsightedness on the part of government? That's one question government records managers hope they won't face.
Tod Newcombe Features Editor