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63rd IFLA General Conference - Conference Programme and Proceedings - August 31- September 5, 1997

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?
Preserving Electronic Government Information for the Future

Melissa Lamont
Maps Librarian
Pennsylvania State University
University Park, PA 16802, U.S.A.
E-mail: MML@psulias.psu.edu


Governments and international organizations increasingly are doing their work and generating their documents in digital electronic formats. This paper addresses fundamental questions concerning the preservation of electronically disseminated government information and official publications: what should be preserved? how should it be preserved? who should preserve it and where should it be archived? when should digital electronic information preservation techniques be employed? and how can libraries aid in this work of preservation?



With telephone lines encircling the globe, the Internet expanding every day, and computers becoming commonplace in governments, businesses and homes, society is moving into an electronic future. Digital information allows for faster communications and widespread distribution of information. Many governments are now using computers to automate everyday functions, and to collect and analyze more data, to increase services or to communicate more effectively with their constituents. Almost everyone agrees that preserving the historical record of governments and international institutions is crucial. Documenting the work of the government, sustaining institutional memory and accountability and archiving the past are important yet often painstaking functions, and digital information adds an extra complication.

Some governments and institutions do deposit their records in electronic as well as paper formats with libraries and archives, which are now adjusting basic preservation measures to account for the exponential increase in digital information. This paper addresses some fundamental questions concerning the preservation of digital information and makes recommendations for libraries and archives recently confronted with the problem.

What digital government information should be preserved?

Libraries will be most concerned with the preservation of programmatic, rather than administrative data. Programmatic data pertain to the mission of the agency, or are collected by the agency in support of its mission: an example might be census tabulations. Administrative data, on the other hand, would be such things as the census takers’ payroll. Administrative data, such as payroll records, timecards, procurement records and internal procedures, are sometimes important to understanding the work of an agency, but are the purview of records managers and are outside the scope of this paper.

Concentrating our efforts to preserve the electronic data that documents the actions or history of governmental or international agencies will still inundate libraries and archives.

How should electronic government information be preserved?

The question of how best to preserve electronically stored information continues to be studied. Current technology only is expected to have a life span of approximately ten years. No one is sure just how long data stored on a compact disk will last. Just as paper is a fragile medium, so too is digital electronic storage vulnerable to damage or loss, due to heat, scratched recording surfaces, power outages, water , electromagnetic fields and other causes. The question of what is the safest storage format is compounded by the problem of technological obsolescence. Even if the compact disk does survive into the next decade, will there still be a computer that can access the disk? Witness the fading away of five-and-a-quarter inch floppy disks, for example, or a few years earlier, the decline of large wheel magnetic tapes.

One means of assuring readability is to migrate the electronically stored information to new media as each new technology arrives. The Report of the Task Force on Archiving of Digital Information, produced recently in the United States of America by the Commission on Preservation and Access of the Research Libraries Group, broadly defines such migration for preservation purposes as: “a set of organized tasks designed to achieve the periodic transfer of digital materials from one hardware/software configuration to another, or from one generation of computer technology to a subsequent generation. The purpose of migration is to preserve the integrity of digital objects and to retain the ability for clients to retrieve, display, and otherwise use them in the face of constantly changing technology.” (Waters and Garrett, p.5)

In addition to migration, or as another, perhaps less sure means of preservation, data can be stored in multiple formats. Storing the same data simultaneously on a hard drive, on floppy or compact disk, and on computer tape will increase the probability that the data will be readable in the future, from at least one of these storage devices. Such redundancy also aids in disaster preparation. Redundant storage, especially where data are duplicated in different buildings, or even in different cities, helps to ensure that natural disasters (earthquakes, floods, hurricanes) or human-made social disasters (wars and riots), will not destroy all copies of the data. Storing data multiple times, however, can become very expensive and time consuming. A human operator’s time spent transferring the data, and the expense of the various storage media, will not be insignificant.

Whatever the measures employed to preserve digital electronic government information, all datasets should be well documented. The relatively new term ‘metadata’ is used to denote such “data about data”. Good metadata will contain the contact information for the creators, file formats, records of data transfers and other important details essential to the proper use and acknowledgement of the data itself. The future user will also need to know the software used to create the data. Some data can be removed from the software and stored separately, other data rely on the software in which they were created for their structure. The possibility to move the data into new software, or the necessity of preservation of the original software with the data, should be explained in the metadata.

Metadata can also be used as a finding aid for information. One good example of metadata indexed for easier location of data is the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) in the U.S. The NSDI uses a Wide Area Information System to locate data and metadata held at various storage sites around the world.

Who should preserve and archive digital government information, and where?

Experts agree that data optimally should be preserved by the organization that created the information. But governments busy with day-to-day affairs and the collecting of additional data may not have the time or resources to implement fully a preservation plan. Administrators change as power is transferred from one government to a succeeding government, and priorities change as governments deal with crises. (Feeding the populace, or the cleanup after an earthquake, are certainly much more important than migrating the digital archives.) Furthermore, some governments are hostile to their predecessors or successors, and so records may be altered or destroyed intentionally. Thus, a government may not be the best place, and should not be the only place, to archive the electronic data that ensure the continued maintenance and storage of the public record.

Many governments have a separate agency, like the National Archives and Records Administration in the United States or the Public Record Office in Great Britain, designed to take responsibility for the continuance of the public record. Other governments rely on the national library of the country to fulfil this function.

When should digital electronic information preservation techniques be employed?

Once a page is printed, the information on the page is static and unchanging. New information requires the printing of new pages. With electronic information the files can be updated relatively easily and quickly. Data can be altered in one file without an accompanying change in other related files. To preserve such potentially volatile information, data specialists recommend regular back-ups of computer files. Copying the file to another medium or system, and carefully labelling the files with the contents and date, assures the preservation of a snapshot in time. Regular back-ups also provide insurance against disasters that may destroy the current database.

How often the database is backed up depends on how much the data in it are changed during the course of the day or week, and how important those data are to the daily operations of the agency. It is usually not necessary to archive all of the backups. Instead, the data creators may choose to back up the database daily, but archive only once per month, for example. They might then choose to permanently archive one month per year.

A clear course of information acquisition and retirement for digital government information should be planned, outlined and implemented. The actual, physical location of the data will depend upon the institutions involved and the preservation methods chosen. Libraries and archives often have detailed plans for the preservation and weeding of analog materials; such plans should be extended to include digital materials. As soon as data are created they should be backed up and should enter the preservation cycle. Unless beset by crises, governments provide centralized and consistent leadership and have the means to enforce the plan and the standards.

How can libraries aid in the preservation of digital government information?

The overwhelming amount of information produced by governments, and the seemingly endless tasks associated with its preservation make archiving an arduous chore. To ease the burden, governments and international agencies are often open to proposals for co-operative information dissemination and storage. For instance, libraries might offer to store the digital files of a particular government agency in return for increased access to the data. Likewise, other libraries might offer to aid the national library or archive with electronic storage space. At a minimum, librarians can advise governments on preservation and archiving techniques.

It may be quite possible that libraries with a strong collecting interest in government information and official publications will become the de facto archives in the future for electronic government information, particularly if the government has no clear procedures or locations for archiving. Libraries able to obtain digital government information, in nations without archival procedures for it, should develop a plan to preserve and access the data in-house. Even the relatively simple approaches of rotating the data to new storage media, for long-term safety, and duplicating it in one or more other media, for short-term safety, are certainly a great help.

Libraries and archives should also agree to communicate about preservation techniques and standards for the conservation of electronic government information. Preserving a database in a vacuum, with one’s own idiosyncratic set of standards, will not aid the causes of redundancy and interoperability.

Even in nations with well developed preservation plans for governmental data, librarians should take a hard look at those procedures. Often the scope of the plan is not inclusive enough, or individual agency cooperation with the plan is less than optimal. Again, libraries can form partnerships in such circumstances with the agencies in question, to supplement the national data archiving function, and can thereby help to assure future generations’ access to this important information.


The preservation of digital government information is important to provide a record of the actions of the government and to maintain the history of the nation. Although preserving paper documents is not without its difficulties, digital information preservation presents new and grave concerns. A detailed plan for migrating electronically stored government information, for redundant storage, and for the careful documentation of data will aid in the long-term preservation outlook. Librarians should be encouraging governments to take responsibility for these vital functions, and should be ready to help in their implementation.


Conway, Paul. (1996) Preservation in the Digital World. Washington, DC: The Commission on Preservation and Access.

Mallinson, John C. (1988) “On the preservation of human- and machine-readable records,” in Information Technology and Libraries, 7(1): 19-23.

Mohlhenrich, Janice, editor. (1993) Preservation of Electronic Formats and Electronic Formats for Preservation. Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin: Highsmith Press.

Parer, Dagmar. (1993) “Government electronic records: an Australian Archives perspective”, in Australian Library Journal, 42(2): 142-149.

Sprehe, Timothy. (1992) “Archiving electronic databases: the NAPA report,” in Inform , 6(3): 28-31.

Waters, Donald and John Garrett, Co-Chairs. (1996) Preserving Digital Information. Report of the Task Force on Archiving of Digital Information. Washington, DC: Commissioned by the Commission on Preservation and Access and the Research Libraries Group, Inc.