Monday, January 24, 2011

Lincoln document at NARA altered by researcher

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, "National Archives Discovers Date Change on Lincoln Record," 25 January 2011.

Archivists devote a lot of attention to ensuring that researchers don't take records out of our facilities, but we don't always think about what they might be bringing in to our repositories. However, as recent events in the United States and the United Kingdom reveal, theft merely one of a host of malicious threats to the documentary record: fraudulent alteration and augmentation can be every bit as damaging.

Earlier today, the U.S National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) revealed that a researcher clandestinely changed the date on a 14 April 1864 pardon issued by President Abraham Lincoln by changing the "4" in "1864" to a "5" -- and thus giving the misleading impression that signing the pardon was one of Lincoln's last official acts. (Lincoln was shot at approximately 10:13 PM on 14 April 1865 and died nine hours later.)

Researcher Thomas Lowry snuck a pen into NARA's research room and the altered the date [images here] in an effort to bolster his scholarly reputation, and it worked: his "discovery" of the pardon garnered a substantial amount of media attention, resulted in the exhibition of the pardon in the rotunda of NARA's Archives I facility in Washington, DC, and helped to propel sales of his book.

Kudos to Trevor Plante, the eagle-eyed NARA archivist who suspected that something was amiss, contacted NARA's Office of the Inspector General, and did the historical research that confirmed his suspicions, and to NARA's Office of the Inspector General, which investigated the matter and secured Lowry's confession. Lowry's misdeed came to light well after the statute of limitations on prosecution expired, but he has been banned from NARA. Moreover, his scholarly reputation -- which is obviously of great importance to him -- is ruined.

NARA is not the only institution that has had to deal with a researcher seeking to alter the documentary record: in 2008, the National Archives of the United Kingdom discovered that researcher Martin Allen had clandestinely inserted 29 forged documents into 12 separate files documenting the activities of British secret agents during the Second World War. Allen, who used a laser printer to produce the forged records, then cited them in his books, which claimed, among other things, that the Duke of Windsor was a traitor, that Winston Churchill had ordered British agents to murder Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler, and that the British had entered into clandestine peace negotiations with the Nazis. Much to the dismay of many historians and archivists, the Crown Prosecution Service ultimately determined that prosecuting Allen, whose health was fragile, would not serve the national interest.

Let's start taking a closer look at the writing implements and research materials that our users bring to our research rooms -- doing so protects our researchers, protects us, and, most importantly, protects our records.

(A big tip o' the hat goes to Richard Pearce-Moses for alerting me to today's NARA story.)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Upcoming electronic records workshops

Just in case you're interested:
  • Next Thursday, 27 January, the Society of American Archivists (SAA) is offering a new workshop, Electronic Records - The Next Step! It will focus on "systems that any archives must put in place to ensure it can manage electronic records, it will cover how to prepare for and address a still uncertain future concerning the management of electronic records." The instructor is none other than my exceptionally knowledgeable and talented colleague Geof Huth, and you don't even have to leave home to benefit from his sage advice: this short workshop is being offered online, so there are no travel requirements, and it's being recorded so that you can register for and watch/listen to it after the fact -- just as you can register for and watch/listen to the Basics of Managing Electronic Records workshop that Geof taught last spring.
  • On Thursday, 24 February, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC) is offering a new Practical Electronic Records workshop at Rutgers University. This all-day, in-person workshop will explore the basic components of an electronic records program, discuss how to address the human challenges of electronic records, examine open source and other software tools, and help participants develop an action plan for dealing with their electronic records. I'll be there with bells on: I'm the instructor. For more information about this workshop, see the MARAC Web site.
N.B.: Geof and I are developing these workshops independently of one another, and although I'm sure that there will be some points of overlap -- our views on all the big issues align pretty closely -- each workshop will contain lots of unique content.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Haiti, one year later

As you know, on 12 January 2010, an earthquake wreaked havoc on Haiti. Approximately a quarter of a million people died, countless others suffered devastating injuries, and countless more lost their homes and their jobs. The earthquake also destroyed much of the country's already fragile human and physical infrastructure.

On the first anniversary of the quake, millions of Haitians continue to live in cramped and increasingly dangerous tent cities. With a few notable exceptions, reconstruction efforts have not even begun -- and the political impasse that followed in the wake of November's inconclusive elections will doubtless cause additional delay.

I apologize for relying so heavily upon a single source, but last night's Frontline episode, The Battle for Haiti (viewable online) offers a provocative argument: Haiti's core problem is the culture of lawlessness and corruption that predated the earthquake and was made much worse by it.

The episode centers upon the approximately 4,000 prisoners -- many of them gang leaders and other hardened criminals -- who escaped from a Port au Prince prison on 12 January 2010, took refuge in the tent cities, and promptly began killing, raping, and stealing from their fellow citizens. Despite the dogged efforts of the police, capturing and re-incarcerating the prisoners isn't easy: many prison and court records were destroyed in the earthquake, the police are woefully outnumbered, the court system is slow and corrupt, and gang leaders can often buy their way out of prison.

However, it quickly becomes apparent that the escaped prisoners are but one symptom of a much deeper problem. Police chief Mario Andresol, who is leading efforts to recapture the prisoners and is consistently depicted as decent and devoted to his country, asserts that "honest people don't go into politics in Haiti" and that gangs proliferate and prosper because of their role in getting out the vote in Haiti's poorer districts. The corruption and the ever-present specter of violence discourage desperately needed foreign and domestic business investment, drive educated Haitians to emigrate to the United States and Canada, force hundreds of thousands of Haitians to live in constant fear, and lead the many non-governmental organizations working in Haiti to act independently of the government. Andresol's ultimate conclusion -- that Haiti would be better off under a benevolent strongman -- may be deeply unsettling, but it's not particularly surprising.

The Battle for Haiti notes repeatedly that, in addition to the destruction of prison and court records, pre-earthquake recordkeeping deficiencies limit the ability of the police to apprehend criminals. Even a cursory review of news reports and reports issued by non-governmental organizations active in Haiti reveals that pre- and post-earthquake records issues are impeding the recovery effort in a variety of ways:
  • As The Battle for Haiti points out, the Haitian police never had the fingerprint and photographic records that enable police forces in many other countries to identify criminals without relying upon witnesses or informants.
  • Tent cities persist because many land records were destroyed as a result of the earthquake; as a result, non-government organizations are reluctant to built temporary housing because they fear that landowners will reassert their ownership claims and evict newly settled inhabitants.
  • Many Haitians either lost their birth certificates and other essential identity documents as a result of the earthquake or never had them to begin with -- and thus find it difficult to sit for school exams, apply for jobs, and register to vote. Worse yet, children without documents may also be exploited by people who falsely claim kinship.
Some of these problems are doubtless the result of poverty and lack of formal schooling. If you are living on less than $2.00 a day and have never attended school, traveling to a distant office to secure a birth certificate is not likely to be on your list of priorities. Some of them are directly attributable to the earthquake itself. Most Haitian government buildings collapsed on 12 January 2010, and most of the people who were responsible for creating and maintaining essential records perished died at their desks. And, of course, some of them are no doubt the result of pervasive corruption. The absence of good records makes it easier for crooked people to do crooked things, and if you're a corrupt official intent upon using your position to enrich yourself, you devote minimal effort to your official job duties.

Good recordkeeping can't overcome the myriad problems that Haiti faces, but it is an essential component of any effort to establish and uphold the rule of law. No one can compel the Haitian government to improve its recordkeeping practices, but non-government organizations such as Plan Canada have made detailed recommendations regarding issuance of birth certificates. Provided that the Haitian government -- or a segment thereof -- takes up the suggestion, the global archival and records management communities should be willing and able to step in and provide needed training and advice. We already have an Archivists Without Borders (which needs to be much larger than it is), and perhaps its time for a Records Managers Without Borders . . . .

On a more immediate note, the Haitian people still have pressing, immediate needs. Doctors Without Borders and Partners in Health were active in Haiti prior to the earthquake, provide lifesaving services, and are widely recognized as having their financial priorities in order. Doctors Without Borders is currently operating eight hospitals and supporting several other health facilities and Partners In Health has developed an extensive and highly effective network of paid community health workers. If you're in a position to give, please click on the links at the top right of this page (N.B.: At present, Doctors Without Borders is accepting online donations only for its general fund, which may be used in Haiti or in another country in need. If you want to restrict your donation to its Haiti fund, donate via phone at 1-888-392-0392).

Sunday, January 9, 2011

A friendly word of advice

If your employer's records management directives start looking like this, polish your resume and start looking for a new job: you need to get out of your current situation well before federal authorities raid the place and subpoenas compelling court testimony start flying.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The infopocalypse is upon us

Last week, the Boston Phoenix published an article by Chris Faraone highlighting how local, state, and federal governments are struggling to manage ever-increasing amounts of digital data. Provocatively titled "Infopocalypse: The Cost of Too Much Data," Faraone notes that:
The United States Census Bureau alone maintains about 2560 terabytes of information -- more data than is contained in all the academic libraries in America, and the equivalent of about 50 million four-drawer filing cabinets of documents.
Other federal agencies have similarly mind-boggling quantities of data, and state and local governments are also amassing vast stores of digital information.

Not surprisingly, "public data remains, by and large, a disorganized mess." Governments don't know precisely what they have or how to make best use of it, and old, paper-centered ways of responding to freedom of information requests and performing other essential functions persist.

Why does this situation exist? In my humble opinion, Faraone has nailed the root causes:
There is too much data. Digital storage is not a natural resource. The amount of information that government agencies may be required to keep — from tweets and e-mails to tax histories — is growing faster than the capacity for storage.
There's not enough manpower to manage all this data. The Obama administration hopes to make more information freely available online. But in the meantime, the old method of requesting data from the government -- filing a FOIA request -- is bogged down due to an insufficient workforce and long request backlogs.
Private companies are storing public data. This trend in outsourcing, largely the result of too much data and too little manpower, is a potential threat to both access and security, as resources that belong to the people are entrusted to outside vendors, raising new privacy concerns.
What to do about this situation? As Faraone notes, the data center consolidation strategy being pushed by Vivek Kundra, the Chief Information Officer of the United States, may help, but it's only a start. Faraone also suggests -- correctly -- that hiring additional staff who can process freedom of information requests and making readily available online data that doesn't contain legally restricted or, in the federal environment, classified information would also improve things a bit.

However, none of these things will solve the problem, which, as Sunlight Foundation policy director John Wunderlich pointed out to Faraone, is in many ways akin to that posed by the explosive growth of paper government records during the first two-thirds of the 20th century:
"Back then [government agencies] didn't know what to throw out, what to standardize, or how to organize. The challenges we face in data are in similar scope -- that's why it's so important that these issues are addressed head-on before it's too late."
Surprisingly, Faraone makes no mention of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), which works with agencies to figure out how to standardize and organize their records and how and when to dispose of records that have reached the end of their useful life, or of the role that agency records managers have -- or, as is all too often the case, should have -- in ensuring that all agency records are properly managed. Hiring some records management personnel -- at NARA, the 50 state archives, larger local governments, and larger government agencies -- would no doubt help to reduce agency storage pressures.

However, the more I work with electronic records, the less convinced I am that simply hiring a few more records managers will make everything better. We forget sometimes that formalized records management theory and practice are not mere outgrowths of common sense. They were practical responses to the challenges posed by the deluge of paper records created by ever-larger and ever more complex organizations. The infopocalypse that we face is in some respects quite similar to that which confronted our mid-20th century predecessors, but it is also, at least in some respects, unique. Addressing the challenges associated with our infopocalypse successfully will likely mean a shift in thinking no less monumental than that which propelled the rise of records management as a discipline and More Product, Less Process archival processing.

What will this shift in thinking look like? I don't know. I anticipate I that we're going to focus less on one-on-one guidance and more on standards development and automation of tasks now performed by humans. I also expect that our definitions of "record" and "records series" will be altered significantly and I suspect that, at some point in the future, be discarded altogether.

Yeah, I'm scared, too. However, our mid-20th century predecessors were as shaken by the changes in their record-keeping environment as we are by the changes in ours. They chose to meet those challenges head-on, and, after a lot of hard work and mistakes along the way, eventually developed workable solutions to complex problems. If we have any interest in surviving -- which may well mean evolving from "archivists" and "records managers" into "digital preservationists" or "data curators" or somesuch -- we'll take our lumps and do the same.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year

Many people in the southeastern United States believe that eating black-eyed peas and greens on New Year's Day will bring good luck throughout the year. I'm from Ohio, where eating pork and sauerkraut on New Year's Day is supposed to bring one luck, but I'm a vegetarian, so black-eyed peas -- in the form of Hoppin' John -- and collard greens sounded much more appealing; however, most Southerners would add some sort of pork product to both the beans and the greens. I was pleased with the way both dishes turned out, and the friend with whom I ate dinner had seconds and took some food home. As you can see, one of my cats had some greens as well -- I guess she's going to have a lucky 2011.

Wherever you are and whatever lucky food you're eating, I wish you all the best for 2011.