Available for centuries: records management & preservation

Your agency generates countless digital records every day, and they all have to be preserved for future generations. And agencies across government recognize that digitizing records that have previously been only in analog form will provide great cost savings, and have distinct advantages when it comes to maintaining the integrity of the original material, and providing access – either online or in person – to a wider range of the public.

Today’s In Depth Conversation focused on three records management professionals who deal with digital records management and preservation every day. Kevin De Vorsey, Electronic Formats specialist in the Modern Records Program at the National Archives; Bill Lefurgy, Digital Initiatives Project Manager in the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program at the Library of Congress; and Mike Wash, Chief Information Officer at the Government Printing Office, joined me today to talk about some of the challenges, rewards, and advantages of digital records management and preservation.

Kevin De Vorsey is back at NARA after working for two years in the government archives for New Zealand. “They’re a smaller country, and clearly the volume of material is much smaller, but the issues are the same,” De Vorsey told me. “We’re all using the same community-developed tools to conduct preservation activities. It was an eye-opener to me to actually see first-hand some of the limitations of the tools, and the problems that posed in terms of the decisions that we have to make going forward.”

The digital records effort in government isn’t new, as we were reminded by Bill Lefurgy. “The Library [of Congress] embarked on a pretty early digitization activity, starting in the late 1980s, to explore technology as it existed at that point. We’re talking about the early days of CD-ROM; there were some experiments with Laser Disc. But it was all about using the existing technology to make digital copies of really significant materials. The breakthrough came with the Internet. Up until that point, the Library had digitized a lot of material, and was distributing that material to schools and libraries on CD-ROM.”


As more records are born digital rather than being converted to digital, finding a standard for those records as they’re created is critical to being able to manage them well into the future. For the GPO’s Mike Wash, that format is XML. “For us, the solution is to get [the content] into a managed content system, in a form that is well documented. Then, depending what the requirements are for access, we can create access versions – whether it’s in Adobe, whether it’s in open document format – and we don’t change that managed content in our system. It’s getting that content into a form you know, and then as either standards change or new technology emerges, we can move that collection forward, and still perform the services to make access copies as required.”

The panel shared numerous best practices from their own experiences and from the broader records management community in both hours of the show today. We talked about the government’s place in the worldwide community of records management; how these techniques fit with the administration’s quest to make government more transparent and open; and how the various pieces of records management in government fit together to make a complete picture of keeping and accessing government records.