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CLIR: Future Generations Will Know More About the Civil War than the Gulf War 2011/09/22

Posted by nydawg in Archives, Best Practices, Digital Archives, Education, Electronic Records, Information Technology (IT), Records Management.
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When I was in Queens College Graduate Library School six years ago, I took Professor Santon’s excellent course in Records Management which led me to understand that every institution has to manage its records and its assets and Intellectual Property.   The vital role the archive and records center play for every day use and long-term functions was made clear by the fact that records have a life cycle, basically creation – – use – – destruction or disposition.   The course was excellent, despite the fact that the main text books we used were from the early 1990s (and included a 3 1/4″ floppy that ran on Windows 3.1).

While doing an assignment, I found a more recent article which really led me to a revelation: electronic records will cause a lot of problems!  The one part that stuck out most and I still remember to this day was in a 2002 article “Record-breaking Dilemma” in Government Technology.  “The Council on Library and Information Resources, a nonprofit group that supports ways to keep information accessible, predicts that future generations will know more about the Civil War than the Gulf War. Why? Because the software that enables us to read the electronic records concerning the events of 1991 have already become obsolete. Just ask the folks who bought document-imaging systems from Wang the year that Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Not only is Wang no longer in business, but locating a copy of the proprietary software, as well as any hardware, used to run the first generation of imaging systems is about as easy as finding a typewriter repairman. ” (emphasis added)

Obviously that article impacted my thinking about the Digital Dark Ages greatly, and it got me to wondering what will best practices be for managing born-digital assets or electronic records for increasingly long periods of time on storage media that is guaranteed for decreasing periods of time.  Or  “”We’re constantly asking ourselves, ‘How do we retain and access electronic records that must be stored permanently?'” she said. ”  Well, this gets to the crux of the issue, especially when records managers and archivists aren’t invited into the conversations with IT.  So when we are using more and more hard drives (or larger servers even in the cloud), “Hard-drive Makers Weaken Warranties“.  In a nutshell : “Three of the major hard-drive makers will cut down the length of warranties on some of their drives, starting Oct. 1, to streamline costs in the low-margin desktop disk storage business.”

So if we’re storing more data on storage media that is not for long-term preservation, then records and archival management must be an ongoing relay race, with appropriate ongoing funding and support, as more and more materials are copied or moved from one storage medium to another, periodically, every 3-5 years (or maybe that will soon be  1-3 years?).   Benign neglect is no longer a sound records management strategy.

That’s the technological challenge.  But there’s more!  I’ve gone on and on and on before about NARA’s ERA program and how one top priority is to ingest 250 million emails from the Bush Administration.  (I’ve done the math, it works out to nearly one email every second of the eight years.)  So we know that NARA is interested in preserving electronic records.  But a couple years ago I read this scary Fred Kaplan piece, “PowerPoint to the People: The urgent need to fix federalarchiving policies” in which he learned that “Finally—and this is simply stunning—the National Archives’ technology branch is so antiquated that it cannot process some of the most common software programs. Specifically, the study states, the archives “is still unable to accept Microsoft Word documents and PowerPoint slides.””

Uhhhhh, wait!  Well, at least that was written in 2009, so we can hope they have gotten their act together, but if you think about it too much, you might wonder if EVERYTHING NEEDED TO ARCHIVE IS ON MICROSOFT’S PROPRIETARY FORMATS?  Or you might just be inspired to ask if anyone really uses Powerpoint in the military.  Well, as Kaplan points out “This is a huge lapse. Nearly all internal briefings in the Pentagon these days are presented as PowerPoint slides. Officials told me three years ago that if an officer wanted to make a case for a war plan or a weapons program or just about anything, he or she had better make the case in PowerPoint—or forget about getting it approved.”  Or this piece from the NYTimes “We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Powerpoint” in which “Commanders say that behind all the PowerPoint jokes are serious concerns that the program stifles discussion, critical thinking and thoughtful decision-making. Not least, it ties up junior officers — referred to as PowerPoint Rangers — in the daily preparation of slides, be it for a Joint Staff meeting in Washington or for a platoon leader’s pre-mission combat briefing in a remote pocket of Afghanistan.”

We Have Met the Enemy, and He Is PowerPoint

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