Friday, September 12, 2008

The United States of Amnesia

"In Digital Age, Federal Files Blip Into Oblivion" from the New York Times warns that many records that once were permanently archived by federal agencies are now being deleted entirely since they were only stored temporarily in digital form and procedures either don't exist for creating lasting databases or political interests are fostering a culture of radical novelty in governance. Reporter Robert Pear describes a situation in which the web pages of federal agencies are riddled with broken links, e-mails are both discarded and purged without oversight from public watchdogs, and the National Archives has decided not even to keep snapshots of the websites of this administration.

Federal agencies have rushed to embrace the Internet and new information technology, but their record-keeping efforts lag far behind. Moreover, federal investigators have found widespread violations of federal record-keeping requirements.

Many federal officials admit to a haphazard approach to preserving e-mail and other electronic records of their work. Indeed, many say they are unsure what materials they are supposed to preserve.

This confusion is causing alarm among historians, archivists, librarians, Congressional investigators and watchdog groups that want to trace the decision-making process and hold federal officials accountable. With the imminent change in administrations, the concern about lost records has become more acute.

As a scholar who specializes in writing about the government as a digital media-maker, I have found the virtual quicksand in which electronic ephemera regularly disappears profoundly frustrating. My recommendations to others working in this area would be to use free and open source software that records the location, content, and date stamp of supposedly authoritative materials on the web. My two favorites for this purpose are Zotero, which has a snapshot feature, and CamStudio for multimedia pages.

Update: A recent article in the New York Times about Alaska governor Sarah Palin's administration also documents some interesting problems with the archiving of e-mail at the state level of government In "Once Elected, Palin Hired Friends and Lashed Foes," the reporter describes state officials who used personal e-mail addresses to conduct state business and avoided subpoenas requesting e-mailed opinions of scientists about global warming.

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Blogger bob c said...

We knew this was coming as soon as those trying to hide things woke up to the digital recall posiblities. It seems an unfortunate result of the much publicized use of electronic forensics in legal battles. "Hide the cookie jar" after eating all the cookies.

6:31 AM  

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