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The Chronicle of Higher Education
Colleges Mull Which Digital Records to Save and Which to Delete

By Florence Olsen


University archivists and records managers are in a quandary as they work to identify what types of electronic documents they should try to save and what they can safely discard.

A poor decision could be costly, said Robert P. Spindler, the archivist at Arizona State University, speaking at a conference here last week on preserving electronic records.

“We’ve taken the most important litigation-defense resource we have,” Mr. Spindler said, “and placed it on the Web — the most ephemeral electronic environment man has ever known.”

Arizona State’s decision, in December 1996, to stop printing policy manuals in favor of publishing them exclusively on the Web was premature, he said. A year later, the institution had to take a step backward and resume publishing on paper to comply with Arizona’s public-records law. The reversal, he said, has forced university officials to start thinking about the issues that have concerned archivists and records managers for at least a decade.

The raw material of future scholarship — and litigation — is being deleted at an alarming rate, according to archivists at the conference, which was sponsored by Arizona State. One former university archivist said the loss of electronic data could be compared to the destruction of historic buildings. “How did we go from a culture that tore down old buildings without even thinking about it to a culture that now values historic preservation?” asked Helen W. Samuels, a special assistant in the provost’s office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Ms. Samuels likened her archivist colleagues to the leaders of the historic-preservation movement, and said archivists — like preservationists — must encourage changes “in people’s attitudes, the law, the tax structure” to halt the loss of institutional memory.

“A Brave New World”

Archivists and records managers now find themselves in a “brave new world“ in which institutions don’t know what digital records should be kept, for how long and for whom, said Clifford A. Lynch, executive director of the Coalition for Networked Information.

Mr. Lynch said the course catalogue — “a valuable window into the way that higher education organizes knowledge” — is being replaced at many universities by an electronic data base. Administrators, he said, are concerned about how current the catalogue is and how easily students can get access to it. “The notion of what happened to last year’s data base, or should happen to it, isn’t even on their agenda.”

Many professors who are now using electronic grade books for courses overwrite the grades at the beginning of each semester, leaving no electronic record that could be used in handling grievances, said Jeremy Rowe, the head of media development at Arizona State’s information-technology division.

Web-based catalogues, electronic grade books, scholarly Web sites, electronic mail, and research papers published on line are all “digital objects” whose preservation and future accessibility institutions need to think about when they design new information systems, Mr. Lynch said.

But both the technology and the policies for building these systems are still in their infancy. “What does it really mean to archive a dynamic object such as a Web page?” asked Mr. Lynch. “Do you make snapshots, or traces of its evolutionary life, or something in between?”

In particular, campus-technology officials have been trying to deal with the records-management challenges posed by the growing use of encryption and certification technologies. Those new technologies certify a person’s identity and protect the privacy of individuals in digital transactions. But what happens a hundred years from now to documents containing digital signatures that were created with today’s privacy and certification technology? Archivists worry that over a century of technological change, the authority and readability of the old records might be compromised.

An archivist’s closest allies at a university are often information-systems analysts and internal auditors, said Philip C. Bantin, Indiana University’s archivist. Auditors and archivists have a shared interest, he said, in the accuracy, reliability, and authenticity of information. They also have similar interests in secure systems and in complying with laws and policies.

Mr. Bantin said he teams up with the university’s auditors on key audits when he has concerns about the preservation of electronic records. “We’ve had tremendous problems just getting the attention of the information managers,” he said. “Working with the auditors gives us an entree that we didn’t have before.”

Hard lobbying “by enough people from enough quarters” will be needed to pressure software companies into making campus information systems with well-thought out records-management components, said Timothy J. McGovern, a senior information-systems project manager at M.I.T. The ideal records-management system, he said, would preserve access to all records — active and inactive, on line and off line, in all media.

“We desperately need elecronic records-keeping systems,” said David A. Wallace, an assistant professor of information at the University of Michigan School of Information. “We’re now seeing the first generation of these systems.” But within the next three to five years, he said, “this is going to be a huge market, not just for e-mail but for all kinds of electronic records.”