Robert Pear Highlights Concerns of Loss of Federal Electronic Government Information*

One of the historic functions of libraries has been preserving and providing access to information in various media. In many ways, digitization of information has positively altered the information landscape. However, with the dynamic nature of such information, vital information preservation issues arise.

In a timely September 13, 2008, New York Times article by Robert Pear that is entitled “In Digital Age, Federal Files Blip Into Oblivion,” the issue of institutional preservation of digital information is addressed. The author maintains that many federal records created by email, word processing, or posting on the Internet are being lost to history. This is due to federal employees failing to preserve such material due to the incredible volume being generated. Dramatic examples of these preservation issues include, the appearance of non-functioning links on government websites and removal of important reports such as those critical of the Bush administration.

There is another concern about information loss not addressed directly in Robert Pear’s article. The issue Mr. Pear raises regarding the apparent failure of federal employees to implement adequate procedures to preserve the huge amounts of significant digital materials being generated may also relate to the ongoing necessary maintenance of such information to keep it trustworthy and authentic. No matter how carefully information in digital formats is maintained on an ongoing basis there is always a possibility that it may become corrupted or otherwise tainted, making it untrustworthy and therefore “lost” in terms of its value and relevancy to users. The American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) is very concerned about this issue because the trustworthiness of all online legal resources, including federal. is fundamental to permanent public access and is inherently a matter of great concern to the legal community
The global issue of digital information preservation has been a significant concern of the American Association of Law Libraries. This was demonstrated by a AALL letter to members of Congress last April regarding the problematic and troubling decision of the National Archives and Records Administration not to preserve agency websites at the end of this administration. Consequently, as Mary Alice Baich the Washington representative of AALL comments within the above article saying that the expectation is to see the “wholesale disappearance of materials on federal agency Web sites…. When new officials take office… they want to make a fresh start.” Thus the implications for the preservation of our national historical record are grave and warrant a change in federal policy.
_______________________ *This posting was revised on September 24, 2008.

Contact Information