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NARA Records Management Self-Assessment Report underlines challenges of safeguarding digital information

The latest National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) Records Management Self-Assessment Report http://​www​.archives​.gov/​r​e​c​o​r​d​s​-​m​g​m​t​/​r​e​s​o​u​r​c​e​s​/​s​e​l​f​-​a​s​s​e​s​s​m​e​n​t​-​2011.pdf indicates that federal agencies find electronic records difficult to deal with and that the safeguard of these records is the subject of much misconception.

Federal agencies are not alone struggling with electronic records. Managing digital information is hard for everyone. Why so? Primarily because the practice of preserving digital records is a new and emerging discipline and as such poses a large number of unexpected challenges that are artefacts of the digital age.

Some of the issues highlighted arise from the specific problem of digital obsolescence. Information contained in documents and files created many years ago, as well as those created today and in the future, is often required for time periods exceeding the supported life of the application used to create and render it.

  • A significant number of agencies do not have migration procedures in place to ensure that electronic records are retrievable and usable to conduct agency business;
  • A significant number of agencies use backup tapes, which NARA does not consider a recordkeeping system, to preserve electronic documents and e‑mail records;

Preservation of Electronic Records in a Usable Format

Last year, 68 percent of the agencies responded that they had established policies and procedures requiring that electronic records are preserved in a usable format. For 2011 we rephrased the question to explore whether agencies have procedures to enable the migration of records and associated metadata to new storage media or formats so that records are retrievable and usable. Only 40 percent said that they have migration procedures in place, and of that group we could only verify 60 percent of these assertions based on the documentation we received in the validation process. Several agencies stated that their migration strategies are specific to each agency system. A number of agencies that answered in the negative said they are currently working on developing migration plans. Twenty percent said they do not know if migration procedures exist, with some adding that they consider this to be the sole responsibility of it departments. Several referenced their backup procedures instead of migration policies; however, according to NARA guidance and general industry best practices, backups are not a substitution for a migration policy, nor do they suffice as a preservation tool.

Agencies continue to struggle with the technological aspects of preserving records created and maintained in electronic format. we encountered a number of misconceptions in the agency comments in this section, and the implication is that some respondents do not understand basic terms and concepts pertaining to electronic records.

The problem of digital obsolescence shows no sign of abating, and in addition as the complexity and interconnectivity of information grows, the challenge of long-term access becomes greater. Much pioneering work has been performed by national archives and libraries, academia and industry. In order to perform long-term digital preservation, it is necessary to (i) understand the technology of the material being stored, (ii) be able to decide whether this technology is obsolete (and if so, what to do about it) and (iii) perform verifiable actions to remove the causes of this obsolescence (for example, via format migration) or provide new approaches to delivering environments in which the original software can run (for example, via hardware emulation).

For a free introductory account to this exciting field read: http://​www​.dig​i​tal​-preser​va​tion​.com/​w​p​-​c​o​n​t​e​n​t​/​u​p​l​o​a​d​s​/​D​i​g​i​t​a​l​A​r​c​h​i​v​i​n​g.pdf

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