Protecting electronic materials for future generations poses new challenges for modern government enterprises. What kinds of digital records should be kept? What’s the best way to manage these archives? How do governments ensure that these historical records remain available to the public? How do governments protect against losing certain records altogether due to possible technical obsolescence of current storage methods?

Government continues to grapple with all these questions, knowing that this unheralded problem is vital to address. In the words of Cal Lee, associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science, a contemporary democracy can’t run without good recordkeeping. “Preserving public records is essential to efficient operations, informed decision-making, providing appropriate services and holding public officials accountable.”

The Library of Congress (LOC) embarked on a program in 2000 to encourage the preservation of modern government records, born digital. Aimed at ensuring continued access to the electronic records of public organizations, the LOC’s Preserving State Government Information initiative hosted a series of workshops across the country, and later awarded grant funding to four separate multi-state projects.

Now that these LOC-funded state efforts have concluded, Lee was asked to review initiative findings and evaluate their applicability to future digital preservation efforts. Earlier this week, he issued his report.

Lee’s consideration of state efforts resulted in several key recommendations. He suggests building on digital record keeping success by involving a broad circle of stakeholders, beyond librarians and archivists. Technical staff and agency subject matter experts, as well as external partners, play an important role as well. In the Executive Summary, the report states that “…the most successful initiatives are those that actively seek connections and collaborations with allied experts and professionals.”

The report also asserts that state efforts should span multiple years to maximize the likelihood of success, as well as allow for many different kinds of participation.

Four Projects Unify Commonly Held Government Data

Each project Lee considered was led by one state, with collaborators from other states and governmental bodies.

  • The Arizona “PeDALS” (Persistent Digital Archives and Library System) project tested low-cost middleware that connects software and applications to automate the preservation of records. Akin to a digital stacking system, officials at the Arizona State Library wanted to protect the integrity of their original digital publications and court proceedings.
  • The Minnesota Historical Society sought to organize digital legislative records, including bills, committee reports and floor proceedings. The program captured state legislative data, establishing a common set of metadata tags that could be used across government organizations.
  • The North Carolina Center for Geographic Information and Analysis aimed to replicate geospatial data due to its multi-faceted historic value. The GeoMAPP (Geospatial Multistate Archive and Preservation Project) examined a content exchange network for geospatial data including aerial images, land records, marine and natural resources.
  • A multi-state preservation consortium led by the Washington State Archives set up a scalable, interstate archiving system for data including vital records, land ownership and use records, court documents and web-based reports from municipal and state governments.

Bill Lefurgy, digital initiatives project manager for the Library of Congress, acknowledged that although funding going forward may be harder to come by, best practice information provided by the multi-state efforts will be very useful to future efforts.

“I think we're definitely in a better place than we were five or six years ago, but still there's a long way to go,” Lefurgy said in a recent interview with Government Technology. “We really wanted to support the development and implementation of some very practical ‘boots on the ground’ kind of activities that they could learn from and then share as broadly as possible.”

Views Vary on Historical Value of Digital Records

Many commonalities exist across state and local government organizations relative to archiving digital records, largely driven by explicitly outlined legal and audit responsibilities. Outside of these obligations, though, deciding which digital data merits preservation is still largely at the discretion of individual agencies.

“It's pretty much up to individual jurisdictions to make the call as to what they think has value for posterity,” Lefurgy explained.

Lee argues that this variation is appropriate. “Complete uniformity across states isn’t a realistic or useful goal,” he said, asserting that strategies must be tailored to specific needs.

He agrees that the state projects funded by the LOC have provided significant relevant guidance for other states and organizations, including funding models, technical architectures and specific tools that can be leveraged. Lee further recommends that governments’ digital preservation capacity should be able to withstand inevitable fluctuations in political leadership and available funding.

“Digital preservation is a highly dynamic arena, with frequent emergence of new projects, technologies, models and funding opportunities,” Lee said. “Governments must hire talented records professionals, establish dedicated records programs and devote ongoing resources to care for records.”

Lefurgy echoed these sentiments. “It is in the interest of citizens of every state to have some confidence that important materials can be managed and kept available over time,” he said. “I'm hoping it's an area that gets some more attention going forward.”

Noelle Knell, Assistant Web Editor Noelle Knell  |  Managing Editor

Government Technology managing editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of marketing and communications experience, writing about public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she graduated from the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and @GovTechNoelle on Twitter.