Publication Date

February 1, 1997

National Archives' Electronic Records Policy Challenged

On December 23, Public Citizen, joined by the AHA, the Organization of American Historians, and the American Library Association, filed a complaint against the National Archives in United States District Court for the District of Columbia. The suit challenges the national archivist's promulgation of a 1995 revised General Records Schedule 20, which authorizes all federal agencies, at their discretion, to destroy the electronic versions of federal agency records stored on agency electronic mail and word-processing systems, provided that they print a copy of the records on paper or microform.

The complaint states that the archivist has "improperly ignored the unique value of electronic records" and has "abdicated his statutory responsibility to appraise the historical value of such records." The complaint asks the court to declare revised General Records Schedule 20 null and void and to prevent agencies from destroying electronic records created, received, or stored on electronic mail or word-processing systems pursuant to the schedule. At particular issue in this case is the archivist's authorization of a proposed records disposition schedule from the Office of the United States Trade Representative and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, which rely on the revised General Records Schedule 20. That proposal called for the destruction of electronic records that the plaintiffs view as having substantive information about the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, and operations of the agencies.

Many in the historical and archival community commented on the revised general records schedule prior to its adoption and stressed that the National Archives was abdicating its role in appraising records with the regulations in the schedule. Records have value beyond their administrative and operational use, and agencies are sometimes shortsighted in appraising the long-term and historical value of records. The revised records schedule gives enormous authority to agency heads and raises issues about the parameters of the national archivist's authority and about what constitutes a federal record. In addition, with changes in technology, some archivists are now recommending that information systems be appraised, not just individual records. The National Archives, however, did not use the opportunity of the revision of General Records Schedule 20 to adopt a more forward-looking approach to appraisal.

Two World-Copyright Treaties Signed

On December 20, in last-minute negotiations, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), which includes representatives from 160 nations, concluded an 18-day meeting in Geneva with agreements on two treaties. The world body decided to drop from its negotiations a controversial third treaty involving copyright protection for computerized databases, which had been strongly opposed by many in the library and scholarly communities. Two treaties on Internet copyright were passed. One dealt with the protection of literary and artistic works and the other with the protection of the rights of performers and producers of phonograms. These two treaties will have to be ratified by the U. S. Senate and other governmental bodies around the world before they go into effect.

The final language in the treaty on protection of literary and artistic works was changed significantly from original drafts. A controversial section dealing with the right of reproduction was dropped. Five national library associations have expressed cautious optimism that the rights of both copyright proprietors and those who use copyright materials can be accommodated in the new digital information environment based on the two treaties passed by WIPO. Library organizations, through hard and persistent work, made major progress in gaining diplomatic consensus in favor of the extension and evolution of limits on copyright, including fair use, in the digital environment.

Congressional Advisory Committee Focuses on Electronic Records

On December 9, the Advisory Committee on the Records of Congress held its second and final meeting of 1996. One of the major items on the committee's agenda was consideration of a report emanating from the planning committee that encouraged the establishment of a technology task force on archiving the electronic records of Congress. The committee agreed that such a task force should be established. The task force will be a collaborative effort involving both the House and Senate; its goal will be to locate and identify major information systems that contain permanently valuable information The task force will examine software and hardware requirements and explore transfer options for placing material in the National Archives and making it accessible. The Advisory Committee is in the process of appointing key individuals to serve on the task force and will give them a mandate to have an interim report prepared for a spring meeting and a final report by the fall. The task force findings—as well as the survey information and recommendations on electronic record-keeping systems, data migration and preservation—will be made available to all members of Congress.

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