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The Archiving Challenge

A few years ago it was made public that Karl Rove, President George W. Bush’s political adviser, and Vice-President Dick Cheney were using a political party’s email system for work related communication instead of their official government accounts. A political party is under no obligation by law to archive its emails for posterity. This brought home the challenge of archiving Presidential, and for that matter, even agency “papers” for the historical record.

Think for a minute how biographies are going to be written years from now. Instead of just going through boxes and crates of personal ephemera, the studious biographer will also be working at a computer screen compiling his subject’s emails, blog posts, profiles, and other electronic odds and ends, and trying to make sense of it

With all my accounts at various sites, I’d hate to be my biographer, and I live a moderately sedate life. Imagine someone trying to compile President Obama’s electronic legacy.

The Internet is sort of like cable. Nothing ever goes away. I mean I’m sure “I Love Lucy” is being broadcast as we speak on some channel somewhere; but good luck finding it. Meaningful archives that contain all the juicy bits are going to be tougher to collect. Email and electronic copies are not like paper that can get folded and found in a library book years later.

Another thing; as technology advances and storage media changes, who is to say that we’ll even be able to read certain archives years from now. Heck, I still have a bunch of backups on 5 ¼ disks in my closet at home. Can I even buy a PC with a 5 ¼ floppy drive now? And who remembers what program I used to make them? For that matter I have CDs I burned ten years ago that are now hard to read. Corrosion happens, no matter how carefully you store them.

Hmm. I have to clean out that closet…

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Pam Broviak

I worry too about archiving information, but more with respect to the data and information at a municipality. As you pointed out, there is not only a concern about the stability of the material on which it is stored, but the ability to find anything. I also wonder about the software used to access the file. At my last job, I was beginning to lose the ability to open old MS Word files inside Word 2007.

For a local govt, I tend to think geospatially referencing everything on a map using a GIS would be helpful for finding information. But are we safe archiving documents as PDFs? Will PDFs be around in 50 to 100 years?

We really do need a good resource to follow as we make these decisions. I cannot remember ever coming across a definitive guidance document covering this topic.