Interesting statement from Ferriero

I’ve been reading over David Ferriero’s responses to the Senate Committee’s pre-hearing questionnaire (available here), and ran across a statement I thought was worth bringing to your attention. Top of page 25:

Q 45: What is your position on a “retain everything” approach to electronic documents, as opposed to the present system, wherein agency personnel are left to determine what individual items are and are not records as defined under 44 U.S.C. Section 3301?

A: The combination of cheap storage and improving search/harvest algorithms balanced against the vagaries of decision making locally make the “retain everything” approach very attractive.

Heresy? I talked to a smart person at SAA who said something very similar about electronic government records. Feel free to discuss below.

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12 thoughts on “Interesting statement from Ferriero”

  1. Cheap storage? Our IT staff beg to differ. My research shows between $15 and $20K per terabyte to manage through time. And that’s at pre-peak oil energy prices. “Save it all” is a combination of abandoning the records management mission, technophilia, and an unwarranted sense that most of this stuff will matter 100 years from now.

  2. I don’t entirely buy into the fact that Ferriero necessarily supports “keeping everything,” especially forever. He’s saying that it’s attractive, but I’m thinking that there might be the possibility that he doesn’t necessarily want to make an answer that will commit him to particular policy either way.

    Disclosure: I work for NYPL and (as of this point in time) fall under his purview, but most of you who read this blog knew that already.

  3. Yes, his response is ambiguous, but given how much time is spent in the document as a whole discussing the importance of records management, I’m a bit surprised he didn’t acknowledge the inherent tension between the “keep it all’ approach and fundamental records management principles. He’s leaving his options open, certainly, as he does for the most part throughout his answers, which is certainly the way to go in something like this.

    There’s also a difference between saying that NARA should keep everything , and saying that agencies should “keep it all” and then transfer it to NARA, and let NARA sort through it and decide what to keep. It’s not clear which option was being discussed.

    Still, I thought it was worth pointing out the response here. There was a very significant focus on records management in the questions, which should tell you what the Senate committee is interested in. I’m happy to see the Mr. Ferriero doesn’t seem to share the previous Archivist’s interest in creating a role of NARA as an educator about civics, which I always thought was a bit of a distraction from NARA’s primary responsibilities.

  4. The “retain everything” approach is very attractive for a number of reasons – including the, perhaps fictional, notion of cheap storage and the vagaries of local decision making. Like many things, though, this is all just a way of putting off until tomorrow what we don’t want to bother with today. Let it be someone else’s problem. Appraisal? Eh, seems too much like work. And what if I’m “wrong” in my appraisal decision? Do I really want to deal with the fallout? Just easier to put it all on the server (or even in the cloud) and wait for the technology to become obsolete (or the information to degrade, or whatever), at which point it will be inaccessible to all and we can just say “Oops, I forgot we even had that old stuff. Oh, well. I’m sure it wasn’t anything important. No sense trying to recover it. Too expensive. On to the next thing.” Responsible archival management at its ablest.

    OR

    We can appraise, select, and then make conscious efforts to preserve that which we deem to be valuable, important, relevant, useful, etc. And we can set priorities based upon our available resources. And we can try to increase our resources through various means to further ensure the preservation and access to the information we hold most dear. What a concept.

    In the end, not only does technology make people lazy researchers – it makes them lazy archivists.

    OK, I’m down off my cynical, cranky soapbox now. (Maybe.)

  5. Very interesting, thanks for raising this question. Kate, you make a good point about the ambiguity surrounding the “keep it all” approach and whether it means NARA or the departments and agencies should do that.

    In my view, the biggest challenge for NARA lies in the fact that the pool of people doing “appraisal” has exploded in the computer age. In the past, when executives relied on typing pools, records managers in organizations trained secretaries in how to categorize paper records which were filed in file cabinets. Agency records management staff could come in to various offices and look over the paper records and provide advice on their disposition.

    NARA and agencies could keep an eye on things because the pool of people making decisions on disposition was small. The record keeping process largely was centralized and responsibilities lay with people who had the training, the time, and the incentives to ensure compliance. Now record keeping is decentralized, whether agencies have an ERMS in place or not. First cut decisions lie not with secretaries but with creators of records, who potentially have a vested interest in how their activities will be viewed. This creates various vulnerabilities. Sometimes people avoid using official accounts altogether. Investigations of the U.S. Attorney firings revealed that some executive branch officials, such as Sara Taylor, decided to use their political accounts rather than their White House accounts for email because it seemed more “efficient.” They effectively took their email off-system altogether.

    With electronic record keeping, everyone with a computer has to make “appraisal” decisions at the front end. As a creator as well as a user of records in the federal environment, I do so every time I decide to delete or save an email message at the office. But so does virtually anyone employed by the federal government. It’s an honor system dependent on the potentially varying interpretations of records status by people sitting at their computer keyboards. What the thousands of people employed at any particular agency do is not easily discernible to records management professionals.

  6. A quick PS. I mentioned that I’m a creator as well as a user of records in the federal environment. Due to my job function, some of the records with which I deal are categorized as permanent and eventually will be transferred to NARA.

    I’m so glad you’re following these important issues. Do keep us updated if you hear of any clarifications on the “keep it all” response, Kate!

  7. What pleased me most was his discussion of records management. I had some concerns that he had more of a special collections, historical materials background. I liked his discussion of RM. IMHO, records management as a profession has to be completely rethought and reengineered. No small task, as a true reinvention will almost certainly require changes to statute. Not to mention getting an entire profession to shift gears!

    So “keep everything” has some attraction, but I don’t think he sees that as a serious strategy.

  8. I’d like to see more information on the costs of long-term storage – either T’s data or some studies discussing this. Those who claim storage is cheap are often thinking of the ongoing price reductions in external media storage, but that hardly qualifies as preservation-quality.

  9. You should have gone to the Green Archives session at SAA, Ben! Hahaha. I don’t have a lot of data yet (still collecting), but an industry article from 2007 pegged the cost of managing (including all related long-term costs like backup, migration, etc) digital data at $20k per terabyte. Real world costs from University of Arizona data center are $15k and change and it’s unclear how much migration work this would include. Number from Multnomah County are similar (about $16K) but require custodian to manage all format migration. I’m still digging for more.

    The two things about this that are interesting to me are

    a) long term costs in relation to “appraisal light/save a lot” strategies; three terabytes of unneeeded stored information hires on archivist. in perpetuity. Or if you work in government, allows homeless people to eat, sick people to get treatment, kids going to school. $20 grand a terabyte forever is real money.

    b) these costs are energy heavy already. If costs get high you can throw you paper in a cave and drag it out 100 years from now and it’ll still work. Not so with digital stuff. If you believe peak oil is a reality, you could see these costs double; we’ll be making hard choices about stuff that relies on energy.

  10. I had a hunch that “T” was the “T” of the Green Archives session in Austin. Great session, but I posed the question here looking for some hard-and-fast literature on the subject. I’ll email you directly to discuss more.

  11. Two quick observations here:

    1) I don’t believe we really understand the economics of digital preservation well at this stage. Storage may be cheap(relatively) – what about management, migration etc? The appropriate portion of a cost of building, maintaining and then replacing (repeatedly) a digital repository? Similarlythe value side of the equation: what is the relative benefit of retaining all, as opposed to retaining an appraised slice? In this picture, the costs of doing the appraisal, and of preparing a transfer are about all we do understand well!

    2) The confusion about cost and benefit reflects a failure to apply such models well in the analogue/paper/pre-electronic world. Appraisal practice is often based on a flawed model of “we keep what’s valuable” rather than “we keep what it is worth keeping, in terms of cost/benefit”. The costs of storing boxes of paper are better known, but rarely used as a point of reference for assessing the merit of retention (more frequently, but less satisfactorily, the basic “have we got room for all this stuff?” question acts a s a surrogate for resource implications over time.)

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