Archives enter digital age

Nov 28, 2002, vol. 25, no. 7
By Anne Sharp

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Not long ago, if someone needed a work record it was found on a piece of paper in a filing cabinet.

No longer. The digital age has meant records are now stored, filed and retrieved electronically. It sounds simple and convenient, but presents new problems and challenges, say Simon Fraser University's archivists.
Ian Forsyth sums up the modern malaise with a phrase: digital dementia.

“The effect is confusion and disorientation within your organization because you can't readily find what you need,” says Forsyth, head of the university archives.

“Or, if you can find it, you can't access it any more or you can't trust it - there are gaps in the information - or you're simply overwhelmed with the volume of information.”

In the past, the creator was usually not the filer of the record. An office would have one central record keeping system that everyone was required to use.

Staff who had expertise and knowledge about the office's filing system would properly classify and organize the records so they could be found again. That was lost with the introduction of computer technology.
“Many people don't classify and organize their electronic records,” explains Forsyth. “Or, if they do, their system is idiosyncratic - they understand it, but could anyone else understand it?”

“Now, each person makes up their own filing system to suit their own needs. That may work for each individual but it doesn't work for the organization as a whole.”

The university archives face three challenges when managing electronic records:
    Can you read it? You need a machine, operating system and software application to read electronic records. The current lifecycle for hardware and software is five to seven years. Technical obsolescence threatens our ability to preserve accessible digital records.
    Can you find it? The quantity of electronic records created today is far more than the paper records created in the past. There is a decentralized, distributed record creation and filing system because everyone has a desktop computer.
    Is the record authentic and reliable? Electronic records are easily changed. Is the electronic record the final version or an earlier draft? Has the final version been altered?

The archives help the university manage the records it needs for planning and decision making, accountability, protecting legal rights, and understanding our history and role in society.

“Will we be able to do any of those things if we don't have the electronic records to rely on as evidence of activities?” asks Forsyth.

“We need to design electronic record systems and adapt our business processes and practices so that in this digital environment we are able to preserve and maintain access to our records.”

SFU records management archivist Paul Hebbard is monitoring a UBC study called international research on permanent authentic records and electronic systems (InterPARES.) The study examines the rules and standards needed within organizations to ensure that they can preserve and provide access to authentic, reliable electronic records that are evidence of that organization's activities.

“The research being done at UBC is to work out in a theoretical way what is needed,” says Hebbard. “Then we need to translate that into practical implementation.

“In order to ensure authentic electronic records, we need what is called an electronic record keeping system that has rules, procedures and technical requirements actually built into a records management software application,” adds Hebbard.

“Conditions won't change,” says Forsyth. “We will continue to work in a decentralized desktop environment. The change that we can make is to provide the creators of the record with the tools they need to classify, organize and preserve their records right at their desktop.”

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