ARCHIVED: Special Program: A Sea Change in Access to Federal Government Information: Revising Title 44 and the Role of the Government Printing Office

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Remarks of Dr. Lewis Bellardo
Deputy Archivist of the United States

Annual Meeting of the American Association of Law Libraries
Baltimore, Maryland

July 1997

Good afternoon. I'm pleased to be with you today to share with you some thoughts about the role of the National Archives and Records Administration in preserving and providing access to Government information. NARA is an independent Executive Branch federal agency that oversees the management and protection of Federal records. Many of you may have come in contact with NARA through using one of our Federal Register publications -- the daily Federal Register, the Code of Federal Regulations, the U.S. Government Manual, or the U.S. Statutes at Large. Or, you may have visited a museum exhibit or done research at the National Archives Building in downtown Washington or our new building in College Park, Maryland, or in one of our nine Presidential libraries, or 17 regional records services facilities. I also invite you to visit NARA on the Wide World Web at [www.nara.gov], where you can view our on-line exhibit: A New Deal for the Arts, and check out the progress of our Electronic Access Project.

The complementing responsibilities of preserving and providing public access to Federal records are at the heart of NARA's mission. This mission can be summed up in a single statement of intent: NARA's mission is to ensure -- for the Citizen and the Public Servant, for the President and the Congress and the Courts -- ready access to essential evidence.

The words, "ready access," mean that we must work hard to make it easy for everyone to find the relevant evidence. And the words, "essential evidence," do not refer just to records that are "evidentiary" in the legal, or even technical, archival sense, but to materials that document citizens' rights, identities, and entitlements; that document government activities for which officials are accountable; and that document historical developments that Americans as a people need to evaluate. By this I mean the impact that the actions of the Federal government has had on society and on what I term "the face of the land" -- the impact that Federal actions or decisions not to act have had on the physical environment.

Ready access to Government information is also part of the mission of the Government Printing Office, and more specifically, the Superintendent of Documents. Ready access to Government information also applies to the mission of libraries, particularly libraries that have been designated Federal Depository Libraries.

So how does NARA and its mission fit into this larger picture, and what is NARA's place in the "sea change in access to Federal Government information" we are discussing this afternoon?

The work of the Archivist of the United States provides a foundation for the work of the Superintendent of Documents. NARA works with Federal agencies in the creation, maintenance, and appropriate disposition of government records. In that role, NARA seeks to ensure adequacy of documentation and the creation of effective records systems. These records are the bases of government information products issued by Federal agencies and disseminated to the Federal Depository Libraries through the Superintendent of Documents.

Now I would like to speak briefly about the proposed revision of Title 44.

NARA supports the overall goal of the proposed legislation to revise Title 44 as it relates to ensuring continued access to information generated by Federal agencies. We do have concerns with two areas in the early drafts of this legislation: First, the proposed GPO authorities appeared to overlap NARA's authorities. We believe that the legislation must contain nothing that would confuse NARA's statutory authorities with GPO's. Any confusion or lack of clarity would only complicate NARA's ability to ensure that the records of the Federal government are properly preserved. Our second concern is that the definition of "information" in the early drafts of the Title 44 legislation was so broad that it would include internal agency records such as State Department cables and agency personnel files. I'm certain that these problems were inadvertent, and will be addressed in later versions of the bill. As we have found with this legislative initiative, we must all work together to ensure continued access to Government information in the electronic age.

With or without this legislation, for NARA, as well as GPO and the Federal Depository Libraries, the electronic age presents new and difficult challenges for managing access to and preservation of Government records and information. The most critical issue in ensuring long-term public access to government information in electronic format is the preservation of the information as technology changes over time. This issue has been faced by NARA since the early 1970's when we first began accessioning what we then called "machine-readable" records. We at NARA don't have all the answers -- far from it -- but our experience may be useful to you.

Preserving records or information in electronic format over the long-term is a critical issue for both NARA and others who disseminate this information. Our experience has been that it is difficult and sometimes expensive to preserve electronic records, but it is not an impossible task. The rapid obsolescence of hardware and software, and the myriad data and media formats used throughout the government present real challenges. At present, we generally accession electronic records in only a few very common formats. This is because we have no cost-effective way to ensure long-term access to data that is reliant on proprietary software or that is kept on non-standardized or temporary media. To maintain accessibility, we migrate the data to new media at least every 10 years. We estimate the preservation cost for migrating these "vanilla" formats is approximately $40 per data set per migration. Our challenges today include compound documents, moving images, GIS systems, e-mail, and Websites, for which we do not now have the capabilities to handle.

The challenge of maintaining the long-term accessibility of electronic information products in libraries will also be significant. In the age of paper information products, libraries have been able to focus on providing storage and access since paper is a relatively stable media. With electronic information products, libraries are going to have to deal with preservation issues early in the life of the product or the information products will lose their accessibility. Many of these information products have been prepared in a wide variety of complex formats using proprietary software to enhance their current usability. It will be real challenge to maintain their full functionality as the information is migrated over successive generations. NARA will work with Federal and non-Federal entities to establish data format standards for government information, so that the data can be uniformly and cost-effectively preserved for future access. But even with data format standards, data migration will be a recurring expense that we collectively will have to bear, to ensure that the data will be publicly accessible in the future.

Because we need to document rights and interests of citizens and need to accurately document actions of the Government, a critical issue for NARA is maintaining the "recordness" of electronic data; that is preserving the context and structure of the record as well as the informational content. Some people in the archival profession use the term "archival bond" to describe the importance of maintaining the context of a record with related records. Using State Department cables as an example, looking at any single cable in isolation can convey an incompete, or even contrary, understanding of the information contained in the cable. You need to review that cable in the context of related cables and other records.

Another critical electronic issue facing both NARA and depository libraries is ensuring the authenticity of the Government information or Federal records we receive and disseminate. This encompasses two distinct concerns: First, that the information product or record is what an agency actually created and not a fraudulent, tampered, or unauthorized document. And, second, that there is no loss of information as the product or record is migrated to different formats over time. Authenticity at the time of capture is a concern that we must all be aware of.

With respect to the second concern, NARA has a responsibility to ensure that all government records and information in its holdings remain authentic and unaltered. In the case of electronic records, NARA can ensure the chain of custody and the integrity of the data as we migrate it to different formats. However, the more broadly the preservation responsibility for electronic information is dispersed, the more complex and potentially difficult it will become to ensure the integrity of the information. NARA's Strategic Plan recognizes that distributed archives may play a role in providing ready access to archival materials, especially electronic records. Distributed archives reflect the growing trend toward distributive systems, and the need to do as much as possible with limited resources. There is a dilemna in promoting distributed archives, however, because we must also weigh the risks relating to maintaining authenticity and control of the records.

Now, I don't want to leave you with the impression that we see only problems in the expanding use of technology in the Government. On the contrary. We at NARA are excited about the ways that emerging technologies can be used to broaden public access to Government information. NARA, like everyone else it seems, is on the World Wide Web. You may already be using the Federal Register on-line through GPO Access. The Federal Register, I am told, is one of the most heavily used resources on GPO Access. Come visit us also at [www.nara.gov], and check out some of the other ways we are enhancing public access to Federal records and information through our Electronic Access Project.

Technological innovations will continue to transform systems for creating and preserving records for continued access. We must plan not only how we are going to preserve electronic records that the nation will need, but also how to keep up, how to manage change, how to stay abreast of new information technologies in Federal agencies, and even how to make new technologies work for us in safeguarding essential evidence and making it more readily accessible. We must do this together in a partnership that includes NARA, OMB, GPO, other Federal agencies, libraries, and non-Federal institutions and organizations.

Together we can make real progress in meeting the information needs of the people we serve. And that's important, for our work is critical to citizens who rely on records to protect their rights, and officials who rely on information to carry out their work. Accessible records and information are essential for responsible governance. And the need for accessible records and information is ongoing because, for our democracy to thrive, we need an informed electorate -- an electorate that needs information to make judgements in the broader light of historical perspective, an electorate that continually evaluates national, state, and local experience. In our society, today's records and information are also the foundation of tomorrow's history. And as the tides of technology continually change, together we play the absolutely vital role of ensuring the preservation, continuity and accessibility of the Government's information.

Thank you very much.