Everything we know about records retention we learned from our parents, who taught us that if we don't know what to do with something, put it in a box.

There were subtle, gender-based differences. Mothers put things in boxes because they weren't good enough to use, but too good to throw away. Fathers kept things because they might come in handy someday. Spring-cleaning occurred when everything was in boxes.

Regardless of what records retention schedules actually say, public employees take much the same approach to maintaining the public record. Risk-averse government culture has historically erred on the side of keeping everything because there was no systematic way to know what to retain and what to discard.

Open records laws -- driven by citizen initiatives at the ballot box three decades ago as government accountability measures -- were intended to prevent the last scandal from happening again, tens of thousands of exemptions notwithstanding. Erring on the side of caution, paper, microfilm, microfiche and digital records on various media are put in archival boxes, never to be seen again.

More's the pity.

The public record is effectively lost to obscurity at a time when real advances are being made to broaden the circulation of literature and library holdings by bringing the world of wood pulp to the World Wide Web. The Web revolutionized research and access to information, thanks largely to bootstrapped content posted by enthusiasts worldwide.

By one estimate, three-quarters of students rely "mostly on the Internet" for their homework, but powerful search engines could not show us what was not there -- namely books and their contents.

That began to change in late 2003 when Amazon.com debuted Search Inside the Book, allowing users to pinpoint a text reference in context and call it up with a single keystroke. To respect copyright, the inside search limited navigation to the exact page where the search term appears and a maximum of one page on either side. Although the searchable archive was limited to 120,000 in-print books, it was a huge boon to researchers who praised the triumph of the search engine over the index, suggesting it had saved western civilization for a generation raised on Google.

A year later, Google trumped Amazon.com's archive by an order of magnitude.

In a $150 million alliance with Oxford, Stanford, Harvard, the University of Michigan and the New York Public Library, Google returned to its library roots with an aggressive campaign to build a digital library of possibly 30 million volumes -- roughly equal to the Library of Congress' book holdings (but excluding its 59 million manuscripts).

For out-of-print books, Google will provide full text access, including thousands of fragile volumes that are kept under glass in rare book rooms at member libraries. For in-print books, Google and Amazon.com are limiting how much even the most determined searchers can see of any single copyrighted book.

Alternatives to the Google Print library partnership appeared within 24 hours. A coalition composed of the nonprofit Internet Archive of San Francisco, Carnegie Mellon and other universities in Canada, China, India, the EU and Egypt have pledged to commit a million tomes from their combined digitized book collections to a free, text-based archive to "ensure permanent and public access to our published heritage," according to a statement.

We are clearly much closer to the beginning of the campaign to digitize libraries than the end. Still, the herculean task of librarianship and the infusion of books make the Internet a more serious source of authoritative information.

There is still time and considerable urgency to make the unique, authoritative public record held by government a primary source online. Citizens expect it, the historic values of transparency demand it, and government will be conspicuous in its absence if it fails to make it so.

There is an old bit of librarian humor captured on a bumper sticker that reads, "Free the Bound Periodicals."

It is time to do the same for the boxed public record.

Paul W. Taylor  |  Contributing Writer