Surrounded by cardboard boxes and musty volumes holding generations of state records, Maine Archivist David Cheever picks up a fragile bundle of paper records that are bound, as was long customary, in thin ribbon that became known as red tape.
Today, an increasing volume of state records is bound in a different way: inside the electronic circuitry of computers, says Cheever.
In Maine and other states, official record-keepers are searching for ways to preserve e-mails and other electronically stored information that will be of interest to researchers, policy makers and the public in years to come. In northern New England, Vermont is dealing with the issue and New Hampshire knows it will have to.
"It's not a question of whether we can afford it, but a question of whether we can afford not to," said Cheever.
"The last thing you want is for the public to lose faith in government because of the inability to preserve the record that validates and substantiates the process by which actions are taken and decisions made."
With 13,000 e-mail accounts in Maine state government alone, there are bound to be some important communications that should be saved, but vanish into cyberspace because there is no formal procedure for preserving them, Cheever said. The issue did not develop overnight.
Since 1970, governments have been developing ways to extract material from a variety of record-keeping systems, such as punch cards, said Victoria Irons Walch, executive director of the Council of State Archivists in Iowa City, Iowa.
In Maine, Angus King, who governed from 1995 to 2003, recognized the issue and directed that his e-mails be made into hard copy for archival purposes, establishing at least an informal state protocol for saving electronic copy.
Now, Maine is moving toward a more formal procedure. The state is screening bids from 14 companies that are outlining ways to capture, store and maintain electronic files. This may also bring about a way to sift through e-mails by using keywords to isolate and capture those containing information about pertinent subjects.
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