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NARA, Why Is the Government Destroying Our History? 2011/09/07

Posted by nydawg in Archives, Electronic Records, Intellectual Property, Privacy & Security, Records Management.
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A colleague posted this sad (but true) story about the National Archives asking “Why Is the Government Destroying Our History?” and I noticed this set-up, “The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) said it will destroy millions of federal court records and bankruptcy files from 1970 through 1995 but will hold those records the government deems “historically valuable.” . . . Ok, for those of you who think archivists and information purists are dirty curmudgeons who toil away amid dust balls to avoid socializing (on say, Facebook!), consider what is actually lost when these records are destroyed:

. . . Incrimination.  You are about to hire an executive. You call us to do a background check.  We find out he was charged with running a prostitution ring in the ’80s. Or, you are about to hire a new CFO.  You call us and during our research we find he has filed for personal bankruptcy protection three times in the last 15 years. ”

So, this is very troubling.  Offhand I don’t know what the retention schedules for court records and bankruptcy files are, but now it seems like the historians at NARA are convinced that they can describe these files as having “historic” value, but they won’t go near the “evidential” or “transactional” value.   Professional records managers are not making these decisions at NARA, because they would recognize the legal value.   So NARA, in its “infinite wisdom” will decide whether or not large parts of our shared legal history have “historical value”, at the same time that they believe that redundant digital junk (e.g. 250 million George W. Bush emails) merit long-term preservation, but court records related to criminal activity may not have value in the eyes of a .  They’re going to throw out the original, authentic records and create a black hole in our shared knowledge of our judicial system!

Anyone remember when George W. Bush signed Executive Order 132333 to limit access to President Reagan’s records?  Well, now imagine that NARA is doing the same thing with federal records.  So what does the Federal Records Act (FRA) have to say about court records, or how does NARA deal with court records and bankruptcy files?

Well, in Spring 2008,this power was held by the federal records centers (FRCs) of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).  In a promotional piece, “Ready Access NARA’s Federal Records Centers Offer Agencies Storage, Easy Use for 80 Billion Pages of Documents they were providing ready access.   “However, the majority of federal records—approximately 95 percent—are considered “temporary records.” Every temporary record has an official records retention schedule—that is, the amount of time it must legally be preserved for use before it is destroyed (usually by recycling). Retention schedules for temporary federal records vary widely, ranging from a few months to more than a century. For example, most agency information request correspondence is kept for less than a year. Individual tax returns are preserved for seven years. Corporate tax returns, while not considered “permanent,” must be retained for 75 years. And certain aircraft certification engineering files must be kept for 100 years.”

I’m not exactly sure what they are doing ,but I assume it’s something like saying that since the papers were digitized (scanned), the originals are no longer needed.  But for public records, NARA is steward.   “The public can also access federal court records held by FRCs. These records include files from U.S. bankruptcy courts, the U.S. court of appeals, and U.S. district court civil and criminal files. FRCs make court documents available for researchers such as reporters writing stories on high-profile cases, former bankruptcy court litigants applying for mortgages or other loans, companies conducting background checks on individuals, and legal professionals researching precedents.”

Okay, so it’s an interesting piece from NARA, but this part really stopped me in my tracks: “The federal records centers have ably served the federal government and the citizens of the United States for more than 50 years. As the needs of federal agencies change and grow, NARA’s FRCs are also changing and growing to ensure that they will continue to protect the information assets of the federal government.”

I hope I’m not the only person to cry foul on this!  It drives me crazy especially when you check the FRC website and see how heavily invested they are in having a social media presence (Twitter, Facebook).

 

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