Authentic Electronic Records:  Strategies for Long-Term Access


By Charles Dollar


This book review was written by Rick Barry and aimed at chief information officers and other information science and technology professionals. It was originally published in the American Archivist (ISSN 0360-9081), Vol. 63, No. 2, Fall/Winter 2000, the semi-annual journal of the Society of American Archivists (SAA).


Authentic Electronic Records is a book about the importance of, and options surrounding, continuing long-term access to the ever-growing mountain of digital information.  The author estimates that this is currently in the range of 600 - 1000 Petabytes (one Petabyte being equivalent to one million Gigabytes) or comparable to 60 billion 500 page books per annum.  Most of those ‘books’ are not electronic records or otherwise of continuing organizational or societal value and therefore are not necessarily worthy of saving for long-term use.  Thus they would not constitute a major access problem during their relatively short life span. Nonetheless, even the modest 5-10 percent that might be of continuing or archival value to an organization or society, represents an imposing challenge to chief information and knowledge officers (CIO/CKO), recordkeeping professionals, webmasters, website content managers, and other modern information managers. 


The focus of the book, commendably, is on long-term access to authentic digital information rather than simply its preservation. This keeps the thrust of the discussion centered on future uses of current digital information – a welcome departure from more limited discussions of preservation technologies.  It is no coincidence that Archivist of the U. S., John Carlin has made “ready access” the cornerstone of his strategic plan for the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).  It is a concept central to NARA’s mission and, whether stated as such or not, should be central to any information-based system.  Indeed, use of high quality legacy information that in past has been considered of little value outside of records centers or archives, is now a key objective of the best knowledge-based systems.  For this reason, anyone concerned with the justification and design of such systems will find this book very useful.


But this is more than a book on long-term digital access.  It is a knowledge resource in the full sense of the term in that it integrates technical information, best practice lessons and human expert lists on digital access:  it includes theory, a summary of several major electronic records research projects, commentary on best practice, over 300 footnotes, 16 pages of bibliographic citations and the names of dozens of contributors and reviewers of earlier drafts and footnoted professionals (albeit without contact information) that together constitute a kind of “experts directory”, a distinguishing element of the best knowledge-based systems.  Although 248 pages long including appendices, the main body of the four chapters is a relatively crisp, 130 pages, each with rich footnotes for drilling down into specific topics.   


The author disposes up front of issues related to current operational records on the presumption that these will not constitute a serious access problem. Fair enough for the limited purposes of this book that the author set out for himself.  However, the book’s contents offer both a warning and sound advice for CIOs and system designers faced with upgrades of operational systems. The past few years have been characterized by massive replacement of legacy systems as part of Y2K fixes, especially using enterprise resource planning systems, and by simply upgrading from one technological platform to another.  We have even learned that it is possible to upgrade to the next version of the same vendor’s word processing system and lose easy access to information created in the earlier version.  Thus, system designers should be advised to factor in the cost of making the necessary provisions to ensure continuing access to legacy information when replacing or upgrading current systems.  Similarly, executives should be advised to require including the costs for ensuring continuing access to such information in any bids to replace existing systems.

Processability and Migration

Dollar makes an important and useful distinction between the processability and the migration of digital information.  Maintaining processability refers to ways of addressing simpler accessibility challenges that typically can be achieved by renewal (the regular re-copying of digital information from a storage medium before its “best-used-before” date expires, and excellent National Media Lab tables are provided to estimate these dates) and by conversion (regeneration from one software version to the next or from one common word processing, spreadsheet, presentation or other system to another – say Word Perfect™ to MS Word™ or  Lotus Freelance™ to MS Powerpoint™ – that is performed automatically by those systems that Dollar generically refers to as “Operational Software Applications”). 


Migration is necessary for the more complex challenges that require the transfer of information from one technology platform to another – say Lotus Notes™ to Tower TRIM CAPTURA™ – where customized software is typically required to make the transfer.  Both are means of ensuring accessibility in changing technology environments, their applicability depending on the complexity of the change from one architecture to another, and both present very different approaches and cost considerations.  The author also takes a very practical and often overlooked point of view:  let’s not focus too far into the future because, as we have learned, there will likely be significant changes in the technologies of conversion and migration just as there have been everywhere else, hopefully including some fixes to what are today intractable problems.


Too often, technical books are written with the presumption that the reader understands the importance of the technical material presented.  In such cases, many readers get lost in the “how to” without ever considering the “why to” implications in human, organizational or social terms.  This one includes not only concepts and technical information but also a Technology Primer appendix and a particularly well done Introduction that includes the broader raison d’être and contextual importance of continued access to in a modern digital world[1].  CIOs and technologists, not well known for taking a long-term view, will find the opening pages of this section very useful in deepening their own understanding of why it matters at all to worry about continuing access beyond a few years.  Moreover, it will provide them, as well as archivists, with a line of reasoning that will help bring their chief executives around to a more enlightened understanding that continuing access is not simply a technical issue but one that needs to be addressed by collaboration among executives, operational managers, technical and recordkeeping professionals.


The author has carefully designed the flow of concepts as reflected in an excellent, multi-level Table of Contents.  This makes the work amenable to serial treatment for a graduate or continuing education program or simply for independent professional reading.  However, a good TOC is no substitute for a good index.  Since it is also an excellent reference book for professionals in business and government, the author (or publisher) would have done us all a great favor by including a robust index, particularly since the same topics appear in different contexts in different chapters, bibliographic citations, footnotes and annexes. An antidote for no index, of course, would be to make the book available in CD form along with the paper version.


While the concepts and broad options for digital document preservation, conversion, migration and access remain relatively stable over time, the actual technologies for carrying out these tasks are constantly changing, making any listing of specific software, for example, quickly outdated.  Thus, while it is valuable to inform the reader of records management systems that were compliant with the U. S. Department of Defense 5015.2 Records Management Applications (RMA) standard at the time the book was written, it should be noted that the standard itself will be revised over time and that these certifications are time limited and require periodic re-certifications.  The current standard and listing of compliant systems can be found on the DOD Joint Interoperability Test Command website


Although it is dense reading both because of subject matter and the absence of graphics (there are three) that are often used by authors to facilitate the reading of technical material, this is 130 pages of compactly packaged state-of-play, state-of-art, information.  However, it is the best consolidation of information on the subject and the best treatment of accessibility with authenticity that I have seen.  It is a book that CIO/CKOs, information managers, archivists and records managers need to read and will want to mark up with their own notes and have within reach on their bookshelves.

A damning reality

Perhaps the best recommendation for this book is what appears to be a damning reality:  the disturbing fact that unlike most “best practice” discussions, the best practices in this book do not point to model organizations using the very practical recommendations offered by the author.  This is no omission on the Dollar’s part, but rather a sad affirmation of the fact that there remains a dearth of living, breathing organizations that the author could point to as models of excellence in implemented electronic recordkeeping systems even: 10 years following the publication of the UN report on Managing Electronic Records: Issues and Guidelines where a number of related issues were raised and options outlined; four years after the University of Pittsburgh Functional Requirements project that outlined requirements at the organizational, recordkeeping system and record levels; numerous other pilot and research projects in the U.S. at universities in New York, Indiana, Ohio and elsewhere, many funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission; major meetings on electronic records research and development issues in Washington, Ann Arbor and Pittsburgh; international projects in Canada, Australia, Sweden; the initiation of an integrated international project InterPARES (International Research on Permanent Authentic Records in Electronic Systems) and countless largely excellent professional papers on the subject in journals the world over. 


This indictment includes even the internal recordkeeping operations of most national archives around the world that have a special interest, professional leadership obligation and in some cases a legal mandate to ease the way into electronic records for the rest of the world.  A great deal of progress has been made in the past 10 years, no doubt, especially in the policy area.  But regrettably little has been done in terms of implemented enterprise-wide systems beyond those spawned by the commendatory establishment of the DOD 5015.2 RMA standard that has been endorsed by the Archivist for use throughout the U.S. Government.  Even there, however, in most cases TRIM, FOREMOST and other 5015.2-compliant systems are being used for plain document management purposes without the full recordkeeping functionality they afford, or they are being used as trustworthy recordkeeping systems but are not implemented on an enterprise basis.  Perhaps it is time that CIOs and CKOs learned the difference between yesterday’s electronic document management systems (EDMS) and today’s enterprise recordkeeping systems that have all the functionality of EDMS but also operate in a trustworthy recordkeeping environment.  This might just happen if they began reading books like this one.


Authentic Electronic Records:  Strategies for Long-Term Access, by Charles Dollar, Cohasset Associates, Chicago, 1999, 248 pp. Paperbound.  $75. ISBN: 0-9700640-0-4. For further information contact

Reviewer: Richard E. Barry.


[1] The detailed table of contents and Introduction to this book may be electronically accessed here.