Among the organizations that are great generators of paper, arguably governments rank in the top three. So it was no surprise that the B.C. information and privacy commissioner has discovered 33,000 boxes of records are sitting in storage waiting to be properly archived — and growing at 3,000 boxes a year.
The main problem, Elizabeth Denham said in a report issued Thursday, is that in 2003 when the B.C. archives became part of the Royal British Columbia Museum a chargeback system was created for archiving records — $454 a box from each ministry. Apparently no department wanted to cough up the cash.
The other problem is that the archives doesn’t have the capability to store the electronic records it has. But digital data is “ephemeral and dependent on a potentially confusing and quickly changing blend of hardware and software,” the report says. “Unless carefully managed and protected, government will be unable to guarantee its availability, authenticity and usability.”
The report notes that Vancouver created a $1 million open source system in 2010 for archiving electronic records.
“As more and more records are ‘born digital,’ government needs a strategy to preserve and archive these records,” she said in a statement. “The archiving of electronic records requires a new approach that ensures records can be accessed as technologies evolve. I recommend that government invest in creating a system for storing and archiving electronic records in light of the unique needs of this media.”
In fact, the province’s policy is to print out electronic records for the archives, which is expected to microfilm them for long-term storage. “This method,” says the report, “is impractical and expensive.” Probably this is why no ministry is doing it.
Instead, she says, the electronic records stay sitting on servers.
Her report also recommends that government provide funding to address the paper backlog and bring archives back into the government. The province should also provide adequate resources going forward to ensure archiving continues, it says, including an investment in infrastructure to support the archiving of electronic records.
Finally, the commissioner’s report recommends modernizing the current legislative framework.
“The Document Disposal Act was designed in 1936 and is not capable of addressing 21st-century records management. British Columbia needs a modern legislative framework that addresses the full life-cycle of a record, from creation, use through to final disposition or archiving. Such a framework would revitalize and modernize records management in government and provide the historical legacy British Columbians deserve,” said Denham.
“Public archives serve as the corporate memory of societies, nations, provinces and institutions, but they are also important for government accountability and transparency. Without an accessible archive of government records, citizens, journalists and historians are hampered in accessing records of our government’s actions and deliberations,” said Denham.