What should you do to preserve records with a long life cycle?
Another technique is to keep digital records on active systems or in cloud storage. That eliminates the need for removable media and the risk of media degradation, but other issues of obsolescence persist.
Emulation programs are a third option. Developers write software that emulates obsolete hardware/software on modern machines. Efforts at emulation have met with only limited success, partly because of its high cost. After an exhaustive study, the Netherlands’ National Archive rejected emulation as a viable option for long-term records retrievals.
A fourth option is to transfer long-lived records from digital form to physical media in a format that can be returned to a digital format, as needed. That physical form can be paper or a microform (film or fiche).
Not surprisingly, that option confounds many: technologists, records managers and content managers among them. At initial consideration, microforms seem like yesterday’s technology for tomorrow’s challenges—a time warp. For content managers, paper has long been the enemy: slow, expensive and inflexible. Innumerable imaging and document management systems have been sold on the premise that they would return the investment in a matter of months.
Yet physical storage media eliminate all of the weak links itemized above. Paper and microforms work in tandem. Microforms are appropriate for the high percentage of records that are bitonal in nature: The images are black on white. Microforms do not work as well with grayscale or color images, so paper is the medium of choice for those.
Surely, physical records have limitations unknown to digital files. Part of physical records’ beauty, however, is the ease with which they are converted to digital formats.
Modern computer output to microform (COM) technology prints record images in OCR font along with much metadata. Today’s optical character recognition engines read OCR font with high reliability, and their accuracy has improved steadily for 15 years. It is reasonable to expect future accuracy to approach 100 percent. Further, current OCR engines recognize spreadsheets, and when they read microfilmed spreadsheets, they drop them into a selected program like MS Excel or OpenOffice Calc, complete with metadata and formulas. Paper records, of course, can be scanned when needed for electronic processing/distribution.
Prophecy as an art and a science
Planning for future needs is a form of risk management. One evaluates all conceivable scenarios and each one’s likelihood, costs and advantages. Then one chooses the best path.
For long-term preservation of digital records, the needs, costs, risks and rewards vary greatly from organization to organization. Leaders must answer a flurry of questions, including:
- How many records need preservation, and how big are the files?
- How long are the records’ retention periods?
- How frequently will access to the records be requested?
- How valuable/essential are the records, and how much security is needed?
No one answer is right for every situation, and the answer to a single question may tip the scales from one strategy to another.
For some, media migration makes sense. One American pharmaceutical giant currently scans all of its paper and stores the images on CDs. It also saves the paper for posterity. Then it plans and budgets for a media migration every five years.
For many others—especially those needing records for more than 25 years—media migration is presumptuous and risky. There is no confidence that the future leaders will have the awareness, motivation, expertise, budget, staff, time, authority and more to migrate digital records every few years. They choose not to bet that the stars will align, given what they know about their organizations.
While there is no universal solution to long-term preservation of digital records, preservation must be assured. For example, those urging the rapid deployment of HITECH digital medical records without consideration for 100-year preservation are missing part of the problem. Digital medical records offer definite medical advantages today, and they may help contain current costs. Without a plan for long-term access to those medical records, the 100-year cost may be greater for digital records than physical records, depending on factors like cost of storage and frequency of retrieval.
Physical or digital? The answer is not instantly clear, and it must be decided by each organization. Each organization must evaluate its needs, enumerate its risks and act to ensure that all records are accessible as long as they are needed.
Records & Information Management Time Line
Circa 380 B.C.—Athenian poet Callimachus, head librarian at Alexandria, Egypt, creates the first information index, essentially a card catalog. Elements of his system persist into the 17th century.
1839—J.B. Dancer pioneers micrographics.
1876—Melvil Dewey develops the Dewey Decimal System (Classification).
1955—The Association of Records Managers and Administrators, now ARMA International, is founded.
2001—The first international standard for records information management (RIM), ISO 15489, is established.
2005—The Sedona Conferences set guidelines for electronic records.
2009—ARMA releases Generally Accepted Recordkeeping Principles, quickly followed by a derivative maturity model.