The U.S. government is already addressing a problem that will soon be an issue for genealogists: how to preserve electronic records. For hundreds of years, records have been kept on paper, then filed and preserved. In today's age of electronic record keeping, preservation of genealogically-important records is becoming far more complex.
A proposal to get rid of Clinton-era backup tapes has drawn fire from some historians, but federal officials say all the data will be preserved. According to a May 3 notice published in the Federal Register, the National Archives and Records Administration would discard 9,193 backup tapes containing duplicate versions of classified electronic records, mostly calendar data, for some staff members of the Clinton administration's National Security Council.
It seems that a small number of National Security Council staffers and their secretaries used older software known as Professional Office System, or PROFS, to maintain electronic calendars and call logs to schedule daily activities and appointments. PROFS was not the council's main e-mail system, which NARA is retaining as a separate series. The majority of staff members used a more modern system, and its data is being preserved.
"Someone should be writing an objection to this," said Scott Armstrong, a historian and frequent critic of NARA. "This is not material that should be destroyed. This [notice] is so poorly written."
Armstrong said the notice's wording makes it sound as though NARA will destroy the only versions of NSC's classified records that are not among the small segment specifically designated by the NSC staff as of archival value and the few materials preserved under earlier litigation. He is also concerned about losing all the metadata -- information that shows how, by whom, and when the messages were created, edited, sent, received, forwarded, altered, replied to, copied, stored, and retrieved.
You can read more about the government's dilemma at http://www.brocktonmass.com/news/publish/printer_337.shtml
The government's quandary with e-mail and calendar issues is but a tip of the iceberg. Genealogists are used to looking at old records on paper or on microfilm images of paper. Today's records, however, often never reach paper. To be sure, copies are often made, and backups are standard in every well-run computer operation. However, will those records still be available and readable 100 years from now? 50 years? Or even five years from today? Will today's modern software soon be considered obsolete and the data in that system's proprietary format be relegated to the dustbin, as is the PROFS data that is to be destroyed?
The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration is actively developing an Electronic Archives to preserve data. You can read more about that effort in my August 3, 2004 article.
Due to its size, the Federal Government tends to be on the leading edge of such issues. However, questions arise about smaller agencies at the state, county, and local level. Are today's records being preserved for future generations? Are state and local agencies developing electronic archives?
You might want to ask those questions the next time you talk to local officials.