Richard E. Barry,
Principal, Barry Associates www.mybestdocs.com
Cofounder, Open Reader Consortium www.openreader.org
Email: rickbarry [at] aol [dot] com
NHPRC: Testimony to The House Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Treasury, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, the Judiciary and District of Columbia (T-THUD)
April 24, 2005
My name is Richard E. Barry. I am a consultant in information and records management, based in Arlington, Virginia. I have served a wide array of clients at the federal, state and local levels of government as well as in the private and non-profit sectors in North America, Europe, Africa, Australasia, Latin America/Caribbean, including several national archivists. My professional paper and biography may be found on my Website at www.mybestdocs.com.
I thank the Committee for seriously considering the budget of the National Historical Publications and Research Commission (NHPRC), the research-funding arm of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and for the opportunity to present this testimony. Your reconsideration of the NHPRC budget is important because of the ill-understood importance by civil society of the work of NARA and NHPRC to our country and the risk of this resulting in NHPRC being eliminated and/or rendered ineffective in the current budget under your consideration. Most unfortunately, as was clearly pointed out in a report that I authored, Report on the Society and Archives Survey, 29 January 2003, the importance of the role of records and recordkeeping in the protection of human rights; creating and maintaining public confidence in government; enabling government by the rule of law; and promoting democracy through public accountability of its officials. Archives and records management (ARM) professionals at all levels need to do a vastly better job, no doubt, in changing this situation. ARM professionals are not typically well trained in outreach and public communications and by nature often prefer to remain out of the limelight. In any case they cannot alone do the needed job. Those who make some of the greatest use of public records and who depend on them in their daily professional lives also must step forward and publicly acknowledge their reliance on trustworthy public records as well. This includes numerous professional groups including historians, journalists, auditors, inspectors general, lawyers, jurists and, respectfully, legislators in the US Congress and related state and local governments.
Apart from NHPRC’s highly acclaimed work in documenting our American heritage, I will speak to the area of its work with which I am more familiar. NHPRC has been at the forefront of important research to address one of the major threats to continuing availability of and access to public records – the advent of electronic systems most of which might be said are recordmaking systems but not recordkeeping systems. I know of no other institution that has been responsible for more important work in addressing this set of problems. As much as computer-based systems have the potential to improve personal and organizational efficiency, they have become so efficient that they have virtually eliminated the traditional gatekeepers of paper records, the clerical staff who typed up official communications and saw to it that copies were appropriately filed. Similarly, as I will illustrate with testimony from the “trenches”, we are witnessing the decimation of related staff whose role was to ensure that those records found their way into organizational file centers and, for the most important of those records, into the National Archives. That gap hasn’t been filled. NHPRC has actively supported numerous projects to find solutions to these trends.
We now face a conundrum: more records are being produced than ever before due to the convenience of word processing, electronic mail, instant messaging, Web logs (blogs) and other forms of digital records – nearly all of which are produced by the authors or systems of the related documents – and the volume of such records is rising exponentially. How will we capture and keep the important records? At the same time, we are systematically decreasing the size and seniority of ARM staff in many agencies, where more highly skilled and paid staff are what is needed, while at the same time adding new responsibilities in many cases, such as the review of complex information systems, responding to FOI requests, privacy, etc. One federal agency historian whom I quoted in an editorial I wrote for Federal Computer Week, "Saving the future now: Commentary," said that the system to maintain federal records has "collapsed utterly…It will be impossible to write the history of recent diplomatic and military history as we have written about World War II. Too many records are gone, and with [them] public accountability of government and rational public administration." Among the responses I received from that editorial was one from a federal records manager, just as I received it except for my changes in brackets to mask the agency of the individual:
“I am glad to see people write about recordkeeping issues. You are correct that Agency heads, legislators, journalists, auditors, lawyers, and historians do not support recordkeeping practices, sound or otherwise….[We do] not audit records. [We] should look at this practice for long-term important documents. You have personnel destroying permanent documents. No discipline except for maybe a slap on the hand…Up to the early 90s recordkeeping was in pretty good shape. We had the salaries and the personnel to perform the mission. However, in the late 80s and early 90s is when we started getting the cuts in personnel. My office was reduced from 11 people (GS11…GS4) down to 3 people (GS9…GS4)…We are trying to handle the same programs and the same reponsibilities. We (records managers) are suppose to review all automated programs that will retain data to ensure they meet recordkeeping and Privacy Act requirements. Do you really believe a GS13 is going to listen to a GS9 or below when it comes to automation programs. Will a GS14 department head… listen to a GS5. Not really. We are no longer able to go out and evaluation offices on their recordkeeping practices as we did in the 80s. This practice ensured records were being kept and long-term records were being captured and turned in for forwarding to Federal Records Centers and to NARA. Even the development of electronic storage systems will not curb the destruction of long-term records…Since recordkeeping is such a low priority, actions officers do not attend this type of training. Also, we do not have the staff to conduct such training…As an Installation Records Manager, I am only able to devote a small percentage of my time to recordkeeping. My other duties are marked as higher priorities…Until Congress takes the bull by the horns, DOD will not change its recordkeeping practices.”
Certainly agency heads must elevate the role of recordkeeping in their organizations. Certainly, in my view, NARA requires more legislative clout to require it. However, the work of NHPRC is also pivotal in underwriting research that addresses the technological and other aspects of electronic records. I can speak to the value and importance of work that NHPRC from personal experience while an active consultant in past years peer reviewing proposals for their research grants and having served on advisory committees of some of the most important electronic records research projects that NHPRC or anyone else has funded, including: the University of Pittsburgh Functional Requirements for Evidence in Recordkeeping, regarded as one of the most important resources on electronic records planning and implementation in the US and internationally; the Indiana University Electronic Records Projects which made great strides in tackling the very difficult and very important issue of how trustworthy records can be captured from modern financial and human resources systems, often called enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems that has led to the very important Kuali Project www.kualiproject.org/, and the linking of the records and audit functions, essential to any evaluation of effective management; and the South Carolina State Department of Archives and History training for State CIOs and other information management and ARM professionals, which provided a model for bringing the CIO and ARM communities to a better understanding of electronic records systems, the implementation of which requires the strong coordination of both groups. More recently, NHPRC has supported the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) to conduct research on long-term preservation of, and access to, software-dependent electronic records. This project, more than any other of which I am aware, has the greatest potential for addressing the most intractable of all electronic records issues: how will we capture and preserve the nation’s heritage through its increasingly born-digital electronic records for the life of the Republic. In all of these projects, I can testify from personal consulting work that state and local levels of government and academia are counting heavily on this and other NHPRC projects to sort out the same problems at their levels, because they do not have the resources to do it themselves. Thus, you may be certain that NHPRC not only serves the needs of the federal government, but those of the state and local government levels as well.
I urge the Committee to restore and increase the NHPRC budget to a level needed to continue progress in this important, if unheralded, national asset area. Thank you.
Richard E. Barry