to newer media." A much trickier matter is how to ensure that people 10, 20 or 100 years from now can access records created with today's software.

"The format issue is much more complex because it's not driven by the people who need the information," Thibodeau said. "It's driven by the people who want to sell new versions of software." When vendors update applications, they don't necessarily think about preserving the integrity of old records. For example, a document created 20 years ago might be readable in a current word processing program, he said. But if the technology used to create footnotes has changed over the years, footnotes in that document might not appear when viewed in the new application.

"A government archive can't be a museum of old computer systems," retained for the sake of accessing older records, Slavin said. "You have to have some kind of software-independent format in which to store these things, or if you are software-dependent, it has to be a system that's widely recognized and available."

Along with deciding how to save electronic records, governments must decide which records to retain. The same question applies to paper, but policies already exist for managing paper records. Many kinds of electronic records -- such as e-mail messages and Web pages -- have no analogy in the paper world; governments must create new policies about which to keep and which to destroy.

Save Everything?

Minneapolis, for example, is engaged in a long-term project to revise its records management policies to cover electronic and paper records. Gradually the city is developing retention schedules for both the enterprise and individual departments. Once state officials approve a retention schedule, the city can destroy records that have reached the end of their life cycles, said Craig Steiner, records manager for Minneapolis. "In the meantime, we're maintaining all electronic records that have not appeared on a retention schedule."

In some cases, fear of losing important records has driven over-archiving of electronic content, said Doug Robinson, executive director of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers. With storage prices falling, "IT people say, 'Why worry about it?'" But while it may be easier in the short run to save everything rather than to impose order, it's important to develop a classification system and archive only critical documents, he said.

Even though storage prices are lower than ever, the volume of electronic records has soared so much that total costs are rising, Miszewski said. And as archives expand -- particularly if they expand without an enterprisewide standard for formats and records management systems -- retrieving information can be extremely burdensome, he said. "A simple request to give me all the documents related to a specific person can turn into a three-month endeavor," which carries costs of its own.

Two other challenges records managers face in the Digital Age involve cultural change. For one thing, end-users must learn to treat the electronic records they create or receive as records. "We have to figure out ways of training users and incorporating that knowledge of record keeping into everyday functions," Slavin said.

Now that all end-users can generate records at the desktop, governments must figure out how to involve everyone in records management, said Horton. "They're going to be naturally resistant to that. You can send out a policy that says, 'Make sure you treat all your e-mail messages as records,' but if you're getting 200 e-mail messages a day and you don't have a system in place to facilitate storage of e-mail, some people will delete all of them. Other people will save every single one." When a government develops records management policies, the policies must be practical to implement, he said.

The other cultural imperative is to make government IT departments build records management functions into

Merrill Douglas  |  Contributing Writer