What's in a Record? Public Citizen V. Carlin

Article excerpt

The advent of e-mail and other paperless communication technologies has undoubtedly been a benefit to government, as well as private industry. On the other hand, it has not been a development without its difficulties, and growing pains associated with the introduction and use of EDI continue to arise. Old notions of "record" and "records management" must constantly be revisited, and both practices and doctrines changed in response to new conditions.


Prominent among the new issues is that of what to do with the vast amounts of information that computers are capable of acquiring and storing. Users have quickly discovered that computers are capable of information capture many orders of magnitude greater than paper systems. In paper-based systems, drafts, notes, communication routing information and other information were either never permanently captured, or were disposed of quickly due to the sheer impossibility of retaining them over the long term. In contrast, computers not only are capable of doing capturing and retaining this information, but they also often do so automatically, frequently without the user even being aware of it. The space and cost constraints of paper-based storage are equally inapplicable, with the result that many organizations end up retaining huge amounts of information, much of which may be of little interest to them, simply because the system does so more or less automatically.


While at least some of this information might prove useful to its owners, there are costs that must be balanced against this perceived utility. Although computer systems often capture huge amounts of information, much of it is captured in ways that are not very useful. For example, although a computer system's library of backup tapes might contain every draft of a document created over a period of years or every e-mail a system has ever produced, this information will typically be buried among a mountain of other data, and the library must be exhaustively searched if it is to be obtained. The cost of such a search can be expected to be quite high. Owners of large systems often discover that the commonest need to obtain this information arises when it is sought by an opponent in a lawsuit for use against the organization, thereby necessitating considerable inconvenience and large expenditures for purposes unlikely to benefit the organization.

The costs of producing this information, either for the organization's own use, or for that of others, can be reduced by managing the information more effectively, but this entails its own costs. The system must be carefully organized, indexes must be created and maintained and resources and personnel must be diverted from other activities. The greater the amount of data that the organization chooses to retain and manage, the greater these costs - or in the alternative, the greater the costs that arise when the disorganized tape library or other archive must be searched.

In an ideal world, all this vast amount of information would be retained and managed in such a manner as to be instantly available to whoever needed it. In the real world, however, hard decisions must be made as to what will be kept and what will be purged from the system.

These decisions must balance the competing interests, and this often entails balancing the competing views of the parties who may have an interest in the information.


Nowhere is this more true than in the arena of public records. In contrast to the records of a private organization, the records of a government agency are normally open to anyone who wishes to see them. In the federal arena, the Freedom of Information Act (FOLA) grants this right to anyone, for any reason, for virtually all federal records. Most states have an open records act which operates in a similar manner for state and local records. …