Archiving in a digital age: The U.S. Archives (keeper of the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, etc.) is developing strategies for preserving for the future the vast amounts of data federal agencies churn out each day. This article by John Carlin, the archivist of the U.S.,outlines the challenge and what they are doing about it. (As typical, my source of such insightful yet off-my-typical-pathway material is Gary Price, keeper of Resource Shelf.
Although we take very seriously our stewardship of such precious documents (as The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, important acts of Congress, Supreme Court decisions, patent applications, presidential executive orders, treaties), much of our work centers on our role as the government’s keeper of the records created by federal agencies and departments in their day-to-day activities.
However, while billions of pages of paper records continue to come to us, more and more of the records we get from federal agencies are the products of electronic government. In fact, we’re seeing an explosion in the number of electronic text documents, financial presentations, photographs and images, e-mails, and web sites.
This presents a major challenge for us: How to preserve these electronic records so that many years from now, when the hardware and software used to create them no longer exist, they can still be read.
It’s a challenge we simply must meet.
If we don’t, the records our government is creating every day will be lost forever. Records of service members now in the Middle East who will need them in twenty-five or thirty years to claim veterans’ benefits would be lost. So would Food and Drug Administration records that document adverse reactions to drugs. And the Social Security Administration will need your file for several generations until all potential claims are exhausted.
This is why we’re building the Electronic Records Archives (ERA)—so that anyone, anywhere, anytime, far into the future, can access these records with the technology in use then.
Moreover, while ERA will preserve the electronic records of our national government, it will also have another important benefit. It will provide information technology that can be scaled and adapted for use outside the federal government.
That means that state and local governments, colleges and universities, libraries and archives, small businesses and large corporations, and many other sectors of our society will be able to benefit from the federal expenditures made on ERA. They will be able to preserve their electronic records for as long as they need them and archive them in any way they choose.
Indeed, the technology we develop for the ERA could have an impact around the world, as it is adapted to other kinds of institutions not found in the United States—even in countries that approach recordkeeping far differently than we do.