Archiving the Digital Age

October is American Archives Month! We’re celebrating the work of archivists and the importance of archives with a series of blog posts about the electronic records. Today’s post comes from Elle Benak of the National Archives History Office.

Memorandum on Managing Government Records, November 28, 2011. (Office of the Federal Register, National Archives)

On November 28, 2011, President Obama signed a memorandum issuing an executive branch–wide order that all government agencies must reorganize and improve their records management by transitioning to systems that could properly manage electronic records.

The goal of this memorandum was to create a records management system that would “improve performance and promote openness and accountability by better documenting agency actions and decisions.” Improving records management was also seen as a way to minimize expenses.

In the memorandum, Obama stressed that well-managed records allow agencies to analyze programs, operate efficiently, save money, and share knowledge with other agencies as well as the general public.

In short, they are the backbone of an open government.

President Obama recognized the need to transition from paper recordkeeping to a digital system. In his memorandum, he called for a framework that can organize the electronic communications and systems that have “radically increased the volume and diversity of information that agencies must manage.”

The memorandum tasked the National Archives with creating a framework in which government agencies can hand over their permanent records in a more efficient manner.

Statement by Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero: Release of Presidential Memorandum on Managing Government Records, November 11, 2011. (National Archives)

The goal was to create a uniform system that organizes and stores electronic documents, thus preserving the history of our modern government. It will help future agencies learn from past decisions as well as inform the citizens of the United States on what their government is doing.

Within 30 days agencies had to report to the Archivist of the United States as well as the Director of Office Management and Budget the name of a senior agency official who would supervise an agency-wide evaluation of its records management programs.

These evaluations, which were to be completed in 120 days, were to focus on electronic records, including email and social media. Agencies were to evaluate their current records management program and give examples of what records management tools provided by the National Archives could help them make improvements.

The National Archives and the Director of Office Management and Budget released a Records Management Directives on August, 24, 2012, which created a guide for agency heads on what specific steps could be taken to improve record management.

Directive on Managing Electronic Records, August 24, 2012. (Courtesy of the White House)

The directive issued that all government agencies, regardless of power or security classification, had to “eliminate paper and use electronic recordkeeping.”

The directive also stated that the National Archives would review “relevant portions of the Code of Federal Regulations” to assist agencies with more efficient regulations to help implement electronic recordkeeping.

The directive issued a deadline of 2019 for all government agencies to have an electronic records system in place to digitally manage their records.

Since the memorandum has been published, the National Archives has been hard at work producing guidelines and tools to help agencies transfer and organize their electronic records.

The National Archives has supplied agencies with transfer guidance format sheets, which detail what formats work best for certain digital documents.

Criteria for Managing Email Records in Compliance with the Managing Government Records Directive, April 6, 2016. (National Archives)

We have educated the agencies on managing electronic records as well as clarified any issues that may arise in storing these documents. We have also provided guidance sheets on information that has to be submitted with the holdings, helping agencies properly store and transfer documents.

The agencies are expected to hold and store documents for 15 to 30 years; the archival documents then have to be transferred to the National Archives for permanent storage.

The most common forms to transfer records to the National Archives are in the format of magnetic tape, CD-ROM, or File Transfer Protocol.

The National Archives is updating its tools and regulations every year to create more efficient systems to help agencies manage their records.  

This means that, moving forward, the National Archives will be able to better organize permanent records from agencies and more efficiently make them available to the public.

The National Archives National Records Management Program Blog, Records Express, posts information on the requirements laid out in the President’s Memorandum.


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