Monday, September 15, 2008

Vanishing Act

Law librarians have been concerned for some time about the preservation of information generated by the federal government. The problem is particularly acute when it comes to digital information, whether that information takes the form of email messages, websites, "born digital" reports, or other official records. An article in the September 13 New York Times should be required reading for anyone concerned about the ability of researchers to access federal information in the future. Some examples that I found particularly shocking were:

- "The Web site of the Environmental Protection Agency lists more than 50 'broken links' that once connected readers to documents on depletion of the ozone layer of the atmosphere."

- "At least 20 documents have been removed from the Web site of the United States Commission on Civil Rights. They include a draft report highly critical of the civil rights policies of the Bush Administration."

- "Federal employees ... store many official records on desktop computers, so the records are not managed in a consistent way."

- The Government Accountability Office ... "described widespread violations of federal record-keeping requirements" in a recent report.

- Email messages of federal officials are not being preserved in a consistent fashion.

- At many agencies, federal employees don't even know what their obligations are as to record keeping.

The problem is replicated at the state and local level. The article describes initiatives that would begin to address these problems, but the author doesn't seem particularly sanguine about their success.

Thanks to Vicky Gannon for pointing out this article to me.

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