- Thirty Years of Electronic Records
Most of the eleven papers in this volume (Margaret Adams, Bruce Ambacher, Thomas Brown, Charles Dollar, Edie Hedlin, Linda Henry, Kenneth Thibodeaux) were drawn from presentations given at the 2000 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists in Denver in a blockbuster double session entitled "Thirty Years' Perspective: History of the Electronic Records Program at the National Archives and Records Administration." The book is organized in chapters: an overall history followed by chapters on appraisal, processing, description, and reference; then chapters on the planning for the ultimate Electronic Records Archives and on the litigation over the PROFS email system and the General Records Schedule applying to email; then a single chapter incorporating brief "views of managers" offering personal experiences and angles not treated in the history; and finally, a [End Page 577] chapter on the quite significant impact of the electronic records grants made by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) beginning in 1991. For those who lack an intimate acquaintance with the history of NARA's involvement (and noninvolvement) with electronic records, this is an excellent beginning, a cross between public laundry washing (on the part of the survivors at NARA who have lived to see a real Electronic Records Archives effort going forward), whistle blowing (more pronounced on the part of those not now employed by NARA), and a usually deserved self-justification (from both) that explains much about why the NARA program looks like it does today.
The fact is that the explanation for NARA's perceived foot dragging in failing to establish standards for electronic records management in the United States over the last thirty years was most frequently to be found, as the story goes here, in the underfunding of the agency as a whole and the choice made by the agency to place its emphases elsewhere as it struggled for autonomy and life itself. Time after time, as shown by Brown's historical overview and the more specific experiences of other authors, the National Archives would be near getting somewhere with an electronic records initiative, only to see the initiative terminated or cut back so drastically that it could barely answer to existing commitments, much less go forward. Sometimes there are hints that the politics involved had to do with a preference for the nonpreservation of specific groups of records by powerful people. In the case of Meyer Fishbein's introductory reflections on how long it took for anything to get off the ground, they are more than hints. Brown even speaks of a "maelstrom of controversy" in the Congress at the very thought of the "dangers of the creation of a national data bank" suggested by social scientists and historians in 1965 to contain all of computerized agency data (2), a reaction that we may today find, in the words of a White House counsel speaking about the rules of the Geneva Convention, "quaint."
Two famous events (well, famous in archival circles), the FBI appraisal in 1980–82 and the Armstrong/PROFS/GRS 20 cases in 1989–2000, in combination with the Reagan and Clinton government staffing cutbacks ("the end of big government as we know it"), were what brought the electronic records program down just when it was making progress. In both cases external pressures created a demand for the Archives to make good on something that it had done in such a way as to shock and appall people who did not share the "archival perspective." That perspective allowed the Archives to approve records schedules that said it would be just fine to shred thousands of paper FBI field office case files without regard for what they might be about. And it allowed the agency to make a regulation that said it would be just fine for most of the Reagan administration's email to be destroyed completely and the remainder to be printed out onto paper without its transmittal metadata. The issues raised by applying "standard archival practice" designed for paper records...