7/25/01 9:57:20 PM Eastern Daylight Time



To: (Shirley M. Hart),



unesco-resolution-july2001.doc (48128 bytes) DL Time (115200 bps): < 1 minute

Dear Ms. Hart (I understand that you are the US Observer to UNESCO) and Mr. Carlin:  As one American who is very much dedicated to the preservation of important documentation, and digital documentation in particular because it is so much more vulnerable to loss than our heritage paper documents which have received the greatest attention, I am writing to urge that you do what you can, even as an Observer, and John Carlin as Archivist of the US, to promote the acceptance of a resolution that is planned to be tabled at the upcoming UNESCO conference in Paris on October 15th. I am referring to the Draft UNESCO RESOLUTION on DIGITAL PRESERVATION, a copy of which is attached.  

John Carlin has made preservation of digital records a major priority for the National Archives and Records Administration during his years as Archivist.  He can speak quite well for himself on this matter, and may have already; but, although though we haven't spoken on this subject, I feel confident that he will also support this position.  

Even more so than our Federal Government agencies, the United Nations organizations (and even some of its Specialized Agencies) are typically grossly under-budgeted to carry out needed digital preservation activities.  I know this from personal experience consulting to several UN organizations including IFIs and other international organizations such as OECD and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Principal among the very few exceptions that I am aware of is the World Bank. I'm particularly aware of that specialized agency of the UN, because I completed a career in information services including archives and records management in 1992. Because the Bank management took a strong interest in this matter as early as 1987, it has moved (I believe considerably) further ahead in capturing and preserving digital records than other UN organizations.  I am aware that the IMF is about to launch a project aimed in the same direction.

In 1988-89, as chief of information services at the Bank, I led a UN interagency, interdisciplinary technical panel on electronic records that produced a UN ACCIS report (Managing Electronic Records: Issues and Guidelines) that was published in 1990.  While this helped greatly to elevate awareness of then emerging electronic records issues and strategies, implementation has continued over the years to be a serious problem largely because of budgetary limitations.  As we all know now, what were emerging issues regarding digital heritage documents are now yesterday's issues that most organizations are struggling to grasp before they get more out of hand than they already are.  Later as a consultant, I assisted UN Headquarters in developing plans for an RFP for a digital archives to address these very problems.  While some progress has been made since then, especially in the Office of the Secretary General, it has been too little and too late in my opinion.

The old bromide that "well, we can just make paper copies of everything and keep it the old fashioned way," as I think Mr. Carlin will testify, just isn't working any more.  As the volume of digital records increases logarithmically, the corresponding incidence of digital-only documentation (such as most email) and the increasing use of multimedia documentation as often the only or major source of decisionmaking support (such as slide presentations with embedded objects), we simply don't have nor could we realistically justify the staff it would take to evaluate such records; and increasingly they do not lend themselves to "printing out" anyway.  

With the increasingly important role of the UN in peacekeeping, in staving off international health disasters, in its International Court of Justice
cases dealing with human rights, as well as the role of the IFIs in helping to promote development and reduce poverty, to mention a few examples, we should not lose an opportunity to support a resolution as important as the digital preservation resolution. Thus, much international heritage of which the US is an important part, as the moving force for the creation of the UN, is at risk of being lost forever.  While the US has a mandate, the Government Paperwork Elimination Act (GPEA - Pub. L. 105-277) requires that by 2003, when practicable, Federal agencies use electronic forms, electronic filing, and electronic signatures to conduct official business with the public.  The UK Keeper of Records, whom I also include in my client list, has a similar mandate to be carried out by 2004. Other countries have or are working on similar programs. However, to the best of my knowledge, the UN family has no such mandate or program and is in increasing danger of falling so far behind it will be difficult to ever catch up.

I realize that the US Government's position with respect to UN funding in general, and UNESCO operations in particular, make it awkward for us to take much of a leadership role in Paris. Nonetheless, I would hope that this resolution would rise above political considerations and be strongly supported by the US. I urge that you, Ms. Hart, with the assistance of Mr. Carlin, do whatever you can to elevate the importance of this issue within our own Administration and to persuade voting members of UNESCO to support this resolution and the followup funding for what it stands for.  


Richard E. Barry