Shortly after Thanksgiving, President Obama ordered federal agencies to "improve the management of federal records" and embrace a "digital-based records-keeping system." If adopted, these changes would be the most significant in record keeping since President Truman was in office.
While the move from filing cabinets and paper to a form of digital preservation is important and necessary, it is much more complex than it sounds. The initiative, if it is not done right, could unintentionally be a hugely wasteful spending exercise, and vital information, records and assets could be lost forever.
Think about the daunting nature of digitizing the federal universe. It's an incomprehensible world of gigabytes, terabytes, petabytes, zettabytes and other "bytes." The mountain of information is gigantic and growing every day at exponential rates. In 2011, the entire digital universe is 1.8 billion terabytes. By 2015, that will quadruple to 7.2 billion terabytes. Both of these figures are incomprehensible to most people.
Digital preservation for the federal government is a monumental task. One of the challenges facing federal workers is that long before the complete set of records is digitized, those workers will be required to start making copies of the records they just created, a process called migration. Then, in a relatively short time, workers will need to make copies of those copies. It's a job never completed, constantly in a state of chaos and confusion, with danger of losing the very data that is supposed to be preserved.
The solution to the digital dilemma surrounding federal records our country faces needs to be as reliable as putting books on shelves. Today, the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights are more secure for future generations than a digital movie shot five years ago or even the millions of digital photos uploaded to Facebook and Flickr this year. This fact is counterintuitive, but the reason is simple.
Digital assets are generally safe for five years, a hard drive safe for three, but anything saved on a digital medium needs continual temperature control, environmental protection, monitoring and migration. And still it's vulnerable to magnetic activity. Traditional digital archiving, as it is understood today, is not secure for the long term. Current methods used, many of which the federal government will consider embracing as part of President Obama's initiative, are time-consuming, extremely unreliable, environmentally unfriendly and expensive.
Effectively preserving federal records and archives for future generations requires accepting the fact that technology will continue to change how the world operates quicker than society can keep up. Relying on the latest computer, "cloud" or hard-drive farm is a path to catastrophic losses of data. The past taught us that paper actually is a surprisingly robust archival medium, along with film. Whatever is used in the future to secure digital data needs to rival the simplicity and longevity of what has worked previously.
One solution to ensure that preservation is done with accuracy and authenticity is a technology called DOTS (Digital Optical Technology System). With sufficient magnification, DOTS enables digital files to be stored in an easily readable form for 100-plus years, even in conditions of benign neglect, guaranteeing readability as long as cameras and imaging devices are available. Because it's nonmagnetic, it's also immune from accidental erasure or an electromagnetic pulse.
No matter which solution is chosen, it must be one that does not require massive amounts of power and air conditioning, state-of-the-art computer technologies or extensive migration. The solution should not fuel worries about data degradation or failure. If the federal government embraces a solution in 2012 based 100 percent on magnetic solutions, the digital can will be kicked further down the road, and massive amounts of data that can never be recovered will spill out along the way.
Mr. Obama's initiative calls for agency heads to outline in less than 120 days from today "current obstacles to sound, cost-effective records management policies" and asks them to "catalog potential reforms and improvements" to inform a report from the director of the Office of Management and Budget and the national archivist of the United States.
The biggest current obstacle to embracing digital technology for records management is overreliance on technology that has proved to be expensive, inefficient, environmentally harsh, vulnerable and not dependable for decades into the future. The potential reforms and improvements, while necessary, need to be built around embracing a solution more robust than paper but more reliable than the latest computer.
Federal government records preservation should be done correctly, from the start, ensuring access to our invaluable data for centuries into the future.
Rob Hummel oversaw the recent restorations of "Gone With the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz" and is president of Group 47, where Jimmy Kemp is an executive.
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