Updated stories

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Several of the topics about which I’ve previously written — specifically, “the right to be forgotten” and the IRS email scandal — continue making news.  So here are some updates.

  • Forbes reported this week that Google has received about 100,000 requests over two months from Europeans wishing certain search results to be removed.  It points out two big problems with Google’s application of the court decision: (1) it only removes the link from the “local” version of Google, so the incriminating link can always be found on the US or some other country’s version of the Google search page; and (2) Google has been notifying web site owners of the removal of the links, which then tends to spawn an investigation that brings the story back into the news cycle, which of course defeats the whole purpose of making it harder for people to locate this information.  It’ll be interesting to see how the interpretation and application of this decision morph over time.
  • A records management take that was posted last week on the IRS email scandal acknowledges the complications of capturing federal records produced as email.  It cites Meg Phillips of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) as saying, “the scale of electronic records being created requires more individual decisions than users can be reasonably expected to process in a manual way.”  One possible solution is being tested by the Department of the Interior, whose Office of Records Management is working with NARA on automating the process of identifying which emails fit into which of 500 retention categories in the general records schedule.  They’re piloting an auto-classification system that can index records using algorithms and automatically file them.  While this wouldn’t necessarily have prevented the IRS debacle, it does address a growing problem.  The article goes on to suggest that in order to guarantee honesty, the government needs to be tested more often — in terms of being required to produce public records within a given period of time.  The founder of a company that provides archiving platforms for organizations is quoted as saying that the Securities and Exchange Commission regularly requires private companies to produce records within 48 hours, but the same rigor is not applied to government requests.  Perhaps if the IRS had been in the habit of promptly supplying records, they would have recognized their IT problem long before it was irrecoverable.
  • Of course, it’s increasingly looking like those emails are recoverable.  According to the Washington Post, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee released testimony Tuesday showing that IRS Deputy Associate Chief Counsel Thomas Kane told congressional investigators that the agency is no longer certain whether it recycled all of the backup tapes containing Lerner’s e-mails.  And perhaps that hard drive was just scratched.  The chairman of the committee said it best: “It is unbelievable that we cannot get a simple, straight answer from the IRS about this hard drive.”  Maybe one of these days we’ll actually get to the bottom of this story.  But don’t count on it happening any time soon.
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Another reason for me to love Jimmy Carter

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Jimmy Carter left the Oval Office in January of 1981.  While the previous four years had been challenging at best, I would argue that Carter has set the standard for the positive impact and influence that a former president can wield.  In 1982, Carter and his wife Rosalynn founded the Carter Center to advance peace and health worldwide.  Since its creation, this nongovernmental organization has bettered the lives of people in more than 80 countries around the world.  I’m particularly interested in their work on access to information, which has been a focus for the past 15 years.  They cite Article 19 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and conclude that “access to information is crucial in the effort to increase accountability and transparency, improve governance, and give people a meaningful voice.”

As a part of its Global Access to Information Initiative, the Carter Center has announced its creation of an Implementation Assessment Tool (IAT), “which serves to diagnose the extent to which the public administration is capacitated to respond to requests and disseminate information.”  They specify four objectives for this tool:

  1. Establish a comprehensive set of access to information implementation benchmarks;
  2. Identify the extent to which a ministry/agency has implemented its law;
  3. Provide a roadmap for improvements; and
  4. Contribute to scholarship on implementation and to the understanding of implementation successes and challenges.

This tool has been employed on a set of 11 pilot countries to judge the extent and quality of their implementation of access to information.  The Carter Center will publish in the coming months a final report that will include lessons learned and overall findings.

For more information, see:

  • video entitled “Carter Center Roadmap Drives Better Access to Information”
  • poster on measurements used in IAT
  • poster on IAT findings and deliverables
  • opening session from 2008 International Conference on the Right to Public Information
    • Carter says his victory in the 1976 presidential election was due to an absence of adequate and accurate information to the American people (e.g., after the assassinations of John and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King; Vietnam War; CIA machinations, etc.) — whereas Carter promised always to tell the truth
    • Carter points to his 1978 Executive Order 12065 that tried to limit the amount of government documents that can be classified
    • Carter wrote an editorial in 2006 on the 40th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act
    • Carter criticized Executive Order 13292 for its blanket extensions of classification on presidential documents [this was later revoked by EO 13526]

Keep fighting the good fight, Mr. President!

Reappraising history

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Rob Christensen wrote an article for the News and Observer this week that reflected on the two people who have been honored by North Carolina with placement in the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.  The statues of former Governors Zebulon B. Vance and Charles Brantley Aycock were placed in 1916 and 1932, respectively.  Christensen summed up the problem of choosing heroes: “Leaders who look like great men in one age may look quite different when viewed in a different era.”  But rather than judging historical figures by the priorities and morals of our own era, he suggests a useful set of questions for evaluating people against their own contemporaries:

  • Did they perform better or worse than did the other leaders of their age?
  • When faced with a difficult decision, what were their realistic options, given the standards and views of the time?
  • What would a moral person of the time do or think?

These sorts of reappraisals are common in the archival world as well.  Not so much in the sense of deciding whether to deaccession collections but moreso in the sense of reconsidering the research value of collections.  For example, repositories are increasingly recognizing that plantation records not only provide a window into the lives of wealthy whites in the antebellum South but also traces of the lives of enslaved persons.  Numerous repositories have invested the time and money necessary to update finding aids to reflect more completely the breadth of topics covered by their collections.

University archivists have also found themselves trying to reconcile the personal and business histories of founding families with modern sensibilities.  A session at the 2013 meeting of the Society of American Archivists was entitled “Journeys of Reconciliation: Institutions Studying Their Relationships to Slavery” and recounted the efforts taken at Brown, the University of Alabama, and William & Mary to deal with their institutions’ connections to slavery.  The results ran the gamut from a statue to a resolution to a fellowship program for MAT students to teacher in the inner city.  One of the most compelling insights came from the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice at Brown University, which included in its recommendations a call to tell the truth in all its complexity.

I suppose there could be another whole debate about whose truth.  But without making this more complicated than it needs to be, this recommendation encapsulates what I believe should drive the focus of archives.  While our role is not to define the truth, it is to provide the intellectual and physical access to the materials that can shed light on the truth.  Maybe along the way we can serve a researcher like Christensen who asks the good and hard questions.

Public records and independence

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The weekend of July 4th celebrations seems a good time to look at the Declaration of Independence.  As an archivist, I’ve been struck by the fact that Thomas Jefferson included in his list of grievances against King George III something about the importance of public records:

“He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.”

Knowing this long history of the acknowledgement that public records contribute to fair government, the recent stories about bungled records management by the Internal Revenue Service are all the more appalling.  A few weeks ago, in the midst of a Congressional investigation into how the IRS had handled nonprofit organizations that are affiliated with the Tea Party, the IRS revealed that a significant chunk of the emails of Lois Lerner, Director of Exempt Organizations, were lost when her computer crashed in 2011.  The IRS passed this off as bad luck technologically and explained its policy of only keeping email backup tapes for six months.

Others have not been quite so understanding.  David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States and head of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), testified before Congress on June 24th that the IRS should have notified NARA when the records were lost in the summer of 2011, but they failed to do so.  The Society of American Archivists responded to Ferriero’s testimony by calling on the executive and legislative branches to increase funding for NARA so that it can appropriately exercise its oversight.  And Jon Stewart managed to fill up a ten-minute segment on The Daily Show about the debacle.

Efforts are already underway to improve records management in the federal government, though it appears to have come a little too late with regard to the IRS.  In November 2011, President Obama signed a memorandum on Managing Government Records.  While Obama’s memorandum focused more on the need for economic efficiency, in their August 2012 Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies and Independent Agencies, Ferriero and the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget asserted:

“Records are the foundation of open government, supporting the principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration.  Well-managed records can be used to assess the impact of programs, to improve business processes, and to share knowledge across the Government.  Records protect the rights and interests of people, and hold officials accountable for their actions.  Permanent records document our nation’s history.”

This memo goes on to specify that “by December 31 , 2016, Federal agencies must manage all email records in an electronic format.”  Gone are the days of print and file as an acceptable method for handling email.  In light of this directive, in August 2013, NARA issued a bulletin that outlines a new approach to managing email records, known as “Capstone.”  This focuses on the identification and accessibility of captured emails moreso than the technical procedures to guarantee their retention.  But given Ferriero’s rapid response to the IRS situation, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot more training for federal employees regarding email.  I just hope that when this problems is resolved that we’ll have made Jefferson proud.