Archival Issues Raised by Information Stored in Electronic Form (March 1995)

March, 1995 (Published in Archival Outlook [May 1995] and disseminated electronically to listservs and to SAA members.)

Increasingly, individuals and organizations use computers and telecommunications technologies to communicate and conduct business. The rapid change in record keeping technologies and practices raises concerns about the retention, access, and preservation of information stored in electronic form.

The most widely publicized legal case that addressed these issues, known as the PROFS litigation, was initiated by a Freedom of Information Act request for access to electronic documents maintained by the White House.1 The PROFS litigation has caused judicial review of questions surrounding the legal status of information stored in electronic mail systems and authority over the disposition of federal records, presidential records, and personal materials of federal officials.

The PROFS litigation raises many specific legal issues concerning the Freedom of Information Act, the Federal Records Act, the Presidential Records Act, and the Administrative Procedures Act, as well as specific technical concerns regarding the design and configuration of information systems.

The litigation also raises fundamental questions about the nature of information generated, transmitted, and stored in electronic form and the independence and authority of archivists in carrying out their responsibility to identify records, to determine their value for administrative, legal, fiscal, and research purposes, and to recommend the most appropriate methods to ensure continuing access to electronic records. The implications of the legal cases reach beyond the particular records, individuals, and institutions involved in the legal actions. Their resolution will have a lasting impact on the nature of the historical record in the information age and on the ability of present and future researchers to use electronic records as reliable and authentic evidence of past events, facts, and actions.

Therefore, the Society of American Archivists, the largest and oldest association of archivists in the United States, representing more than 3,000 individuals and 500 institutions, proclaims its position as follows:

1. Electronic communications that are created, stored, or transmitted through electronic mail systems in the normal course of activities are records.

Organizations large and small, public and private and individuals create records for a wide variety of purposes. Records document transactions and decisions, provide evidence of past actions, and keep track of rights and obligations. Organizations and individuals rely increasingly on electronic systems to communicate, transact business, formulate and develop policies, and disseminate regulations, policies, and directives. The records created, transmitted, and stored as a result of the use of these systems must be subject to the same statutes, regulations, standards, policies, and professional practices that pertain to records in all other formats. Organizations should review policies governing access, privacy, security, and retention of records to ensure that consistent standards are in place for all records regardless of format. The use of electronic systems to create and store records should not diminish organizational control over records, adequacy of documentation, processes for establishing accountability, individual rights to access records, or protection against the inappropriate or unauthorized use of records.

2. Professional archivists should have exclusive authority to determine the long-term value of records and the most appropriate methods for ensuring preservation and continuing access to records. In determining the long-term value of records, archivists should be shielded from undue political or personal pressures.

Archivists must have sufficient authority and independence to determine the adequacy of documentation, the effectiveness of record keeping systems, and the continuing value of records. Archivists should not be pressured into approving the destruction of records because they may implicate, embarrass, or expose the originators or subjects of the records to unfavorable publicity. These decisions must be based exclusively on professional judgment, guided by a professional code of ethics which forbids professional archivists from revealing or profiting from information they encounter in the course of their work.2

Professional judgments regarding the long-term value of records should not be influenced by the presence of access restrictions. SAA recognizes that access must be restricted to some records with archival value to protect personal privacy, national security, identities of informants, trade secrets, and information obtained in confidence. The presence of private, confidential, or restricted information is not a reason to destroy records. Archivists are professionally competent to meet the challenges presented by the existence of private, confidential, or sensitive information in the archival materials they administer, and accept the responsibility to administer access restrictions as an integral part of professional work. Professional archivists also accept the responsibility to consult widely with the research community when determining the long-term value of records.

3. Preserving electronic records and providing continuing access to them will require significant changes in record keeping policies and practices and an enhanced role for archivists in designing record keeping systems, appraising records, and setting standards for retention and preservation of records.

Electronic records pose significant challenges to the archival profession. The PROFS litigation is only one of many examples that illustrate the need for new methods and approaches to the long-term preservation of electronic records. The effective management of electronic records requires a clear definition of what is a record and what is not, a mechanism to segregate records from other types of information, and administrative procedures and technical means to manage records over time.

Recordkeeping systems must be designed to make appropriate distinctions between records and non-record material so that such distinctions are made systematically, consistently, and as automatically as possible. Defendants in the PROFS litigation are now attempting to segregate records from other types of information after the fact from materials stored indiscriminately on back-up tapes and hard drives. This process is time consuming, labor intensive, and very costly.

To reduce the risk of legal actions, loss of valuable records, and expensive recovery procedures, record keeping requirements must be identified so that systems can segregate records from non-record material automatically. Organizations must then take appropriate measures to ensure that records with continuing value are not corrupted inadvertently, or intentionally deleted, lost through system failure, or rendered inaccessible from hardware or software obsolescence. Professional archivists can provide advice that would allow for the creation of systems able to:

a) segregate automatically records from other forms of information;

b) maintain the integrity and authenticity of records;

c) ensure the accessibility of records over time;

d) protect their confidentiality;

e) ensure appropriate flow of records in relation to administrative processes;

f) maintain proper documentation of systems, records, and transactions; and

g) administer the regular and orderly disposition of records with no continuing value.

Archivists can provide advice on storage media for short-term and long-term preservation, on retrieval systems, and on proper procedures of control, audit, and review of record keeping practices. Archives must expand their capabilities to advise others in the maintenance and preservation of electronic records, and archival institutions must make an active effort to acquire, preserve, and provide access to electronic records when the originating organization or individual is unable or unwilling to preserve records with long-term value.

SAA believes that meeting the challenges presented by the widespread use of electronic records systems will require significant changes in archival practices and in the relationship between archivists, their parent institutions, and allied professions.

In SAA's strategic plan (Leadership and Service in the 1990s), goal three states that the Society will position itself to lead the archival profession and represent the interests of the profession in shaping policies and accepted practices for identifying, preserving, and using electronic records." To achieve that goal, SAA is developing guidelines and services aimed at preparing archivists to meet this challenge.

In 1993, SAA Council endorsed curriculum guidelines for automated records and techniques which recommend that all professional archivists are exposed to the basic concepts of electronic record keeping and automation in archives by the year 2000. In 1994, SAA established an Electronic Records Strategies Task Force to provide further guidance to the profession on electronic records issues.

Not withstanding the many initiatives that the Society has taken, is taking, and will continue to take, the challenges presented by the ever increasing use of new information technologies and by the rapidity with which they change are too formidable to be dealt with in isolation. A larger collective effort is needed to ensure that individuals and organizations acting on behalf of society remain accountable for their actions and that future generations will be able to look to the records of the past for inspiration, warning, guidance, or simply to reflect on the past.

SAA reaffirms the ultimate importance of creating and maintaining reliable and authentic records for administrative and historical accountability. SAA seeks support, cooperation, assistance, and advice in this endeavor from allied professions and everyone concerned about preservation of the historical record in information age.