A key theme of the upcoming Government of Canada discussions on the “digital office” is going to be electronic recordkeeping. This is not surprising since the prime mover for this initiative is Library and Archives Canada, an institution charged with preserving records of historical value, also because, one could hardly imagine a digital office of the future that doesn’t rest on well managed and accessible digital information. With sound digital recordkeeping comes transparency, preservation of our legacy knowledge and, most importantly, the ability to contribute, find and share the right information.
As these discussions gear up, government employees who work in information management will be facing a major challenge: coming to grips with the way digital information is fundamentally changing recordkeeping. Digital information calls into question some well established recordkeeping roles and in no place is this more evident than in determining what information to keep and what information to delete. In a paper-based world ‘keep or delete’ procedures enabled us to weed out older records so that we could manage the limits on physicial storage space and more easily find valuable records. Digital records do not take up physical space and with dramatically improved searchability of digital information ie search engines, the real question is why don’t we just keep all of our digital information?
Here are 5 reasons to keep everything:
1) Costs of storing digital information continue to plummet. A gigabyte, (200,000 pages of txt) of digital storage costed $12,000 in 1989 and costs $.64 in 2010.
2) Web2.0 and other new tools are compounding the complexity of determining what to delete. These web20 tools do not behave like traditional records ie Wikis are continuously evolving, organic and integrated.
3) Knowledge management is broadening the scope of what information is considered valuable. In the past, final versions and major drafts of important documents were considered valuable records. Knowledge Management has broadened the notion of what is valuable to include discussions, decision and evolutions in thought that go into the creation of these ‘official’ records.
4) Search engine and other technologies are enabling the management of much larger collections of unstructured (unorganized) information, to filter out the noise to get at the real information. Eg. Google creates order to Internet Chaos. Eg. Version control allows for the designation of major drafts and final documents without having to delete.
5) Unpredictability of the future value of information and knowledge. It is harder to assess what will be of future business or archival value so it is safer just to keep the information rather than discarding it. Eg Climate change scientists are finding valuable data in ships logs from the 17th and 18th century, recently published by the British admiralty.
Seriously considering the idea of keeping everything does not mean that information should not be managed. It is still fundamentally important to have processes in place to identify major and final documents and to put rules around how new tools like wikis need to be managed in way that makes this information reliable and findable.
It is likely to be too administratively costly and even risky to continue to go through the age old processes of disposition (deleting) in a digital environment. At any rate, Information Management professionals need to examine fundamentally what this all means in a digital world.