A new Presidential memo, which directs federal agencies to take new steps for archiving digital records, such as emails and postings on social media networks, points to a record-keeping challenge.
Over the past decade, email has become the primary method of communication, and social media use — such as postings on Facebook and Twitter — has become a normal part of doing business for some agencies.
But the sheer volume of new records and the profusion of various digital formats has proven to be a challenge.
For one, how exactly does an agency store a tweet? And how do agencies know when the latest 140-character mini-message rises to the level of a permanently valuable historical record?
‘Harvesting’ and ‘capturing’
The key to the technological question is “harvesting” and “capturing” such data, said Paul Wester, director of the modern records program at the National Archives and Records Administration. Those technologies do exist, he said.
“We need to learn more about them and how they can scale up for governmentwide use,” he added.
But under the orders of the memo, each agency must first appoint a senior official tasked with reviewing records policy as it relates to digital data. NARA will review those reports and will then develop a records-management directive for agencies to follow.
It’s not the first time NARA has studied social media.
It’s clear why archivists, historians and government transparency groups alike value the preservation of emails.
“Emails are where you have the candid exchanges that really are the so-called smoking gun,” said Anne Weisman, chief counsel for the watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, in Washington. “This stuff is important for the public to hold the government accountable and tell the whole story.”
But Twitter and Facebook are often seen more as a supplementary — even trivial — method of communication.
NARA’s 2010 guidance emphasized that it’s not so much the medium that matters, but the message.
The bulletin listed criteria for determining the record status of social media content. For example:
Is the information unique and not available anywhere else?
Does it contain information about an agency’s policies or mission?
Is there a business need for the information?
Even if agencies simply re-post material found elsewhere on an agency website, the collaborative aspect of social media may add historical value.
“Keep in mind, social media platforms may offer better indexing, opportunity for public comment or other collaboration,” the guidance cautioned. “These factors may add value to the content making that content a record.”
Frustrated users of the site took to the agency’s Facebook page to air their frustration, and OPM responded directly via the social networking site.
Too much clutter?
However, not every single agency tweet is worthy of a place in the Archives’ repository of permanently valuable records.
The key question to ask is how using these various technologies and platforms relate to an agency’s business process, Wester explained, not necessarily who or where the tweeting originates from.
“It doesn’t matter where they’re tweeting or doing other sorts of collaborative work, but it does matter that the content that they generate while using these tools is captured within their record-keeping systems within their agencies. Therein lies the challenge that we want to explore,” Wester said.
In fact, holding on to too much content can present its own problems — cluttering up the record with relatively unimportant material.
Wester said the Presidential memo isn’t necessarily a sudden shift from NARA’s previous social media and digital strategies.
“What’s dramatic here is the high level of attention we’ve received from the administration about this important initiative,” he said.
It’s not the first time NARA has been nudged to issue more in-depth guidance for capturing social media records.
A June 2011 Government Accountabilty Office report identified 23 of 24 major agencies with a presence on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. But not every agency had taken steps to set records-management guidelines. In fact, almost half of those surveyed hadn’t developed such guidelines.
GAO recommended NARA issue comprehensive guidance on social media record-keeping. In a letter commenting on the report, Archivist David Ferriero said the agency concurred with the report.