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STRUCTURAL COMPLEXITY OF ELECTRONIC RECORDS AS A FACTOR GUIDING DECISIONS ON PERMANENT RETENTION

Eljas Orrman Director of the Provincial Archives of Vaasa, Finland

During the latter half of the 1990s the international archival scene has been characterised by an increasing emphasis on electronic records and record-keeping systems. Considerable intellectual effort has been invested in different projects with the aim of defining the functional requirements for record-keeping systems. The goal of these projects has been to safeguard the completeness, authenticity and reliability of the electronic records and to ensure that the information retains its usability and evidential character not only during the current and semicurrent stages of the records life cycle but also after they have become non-current.1 I believe that most of you present here are very familiar with these projects. However, no consensus seems to have been reached about the means to arrive at the goals mentioned above.2 These questions have also been dealt with in the context of the DLM-Forum. Most papers of the first DLM-Forum concerning the long-term retention of records have been characterised by the lack of explicit statements with regard to the character of the time perspective that is used. The terminological variety in some of the presentations of the first DLM-Forum, for example, is an indication of this.3 The following terms, at least, were used in these presentations: permanent preservation and permanent storage (Michael Wettengel, p. 190, Gudrun Fiedler, p. 200), historical archiving and historical conservation (Michle Conchon, pp. 146, 147) long-term preservation (Huib Vissers, p. 153), long term data maintenance (introductory note to section "Costs of Preservation", p. 168). The Guidelines produced within the framework of the DLM-Forum use, for their part, the terms long-term preservation and long-term storage.4 In the presentations mentioned above, the terms that were used are taken as given without closer discussion of the real content attached to them. When the expression permanent preservation is used, one can assume that it contains the idea of an indefinite period of preservation, i.e. for many centuries. In the first DLM-Forum, however, Michle Conchon seems to have been the only one who concretely expressed what kind of time perspective she had in mind. According to her historical archiving means preserving electronic materials for centuries. Long-term preservation, for its part, contains the idea of a limited period of preservation also with regard to non-current records. No specification on the possible duration of this period, decades or centuries, seems to have been presented, however. At the beginning of the 1990s Charles Dollar presented views on the prerequisites of the preservation of electronic materials. He maintained that the costs that are needed to safeguard the permanent preservation of electronic information become, due to their cumulative nature, so high that we should abandon the concepts of permanent preservation and permanent value in connection with electronic records and adopt the concept of continuing value instead. This contains the idea that the question of preservation will be assessed anew in the future, considering all the costs and benefits.5 In Dollars view, then, the high cumulative costs constitute a serious, perhaps the most serious 49

problem of the long-term preservation of electronic records. To solve the future problems of cost, he proposes that long-term preservation should be left as a responsibility of the records creating organizations that maintain, for their own operative use, electronic record-keeping systems and that specific rules should be developed for this kind of preservation.6 The idea that the permanent/continuing preservation of electronic materials should be left to the creating organizations does not seem to have gained any larger understanding. Accordingly, the UBC-MAS project, for example, has come to the conclusion that electronic records meant for indefinite preservation should be transferred to a competent archival body in order to guarantee their authenticity. 7 The importance of the cost, however, as a factor that sets limits to the permanent/long-term preservation of records in electronic form can hardly be denied. When the factors connected with the long-term preservation of electronic information have been analysed, the main emphasis seems to have been on technical questions while the question of costs has attracted much less attention. It seems, however, that this question has not lost its relevance and actuality with regard to the permanent/long-term preservation of electronic records because the views that Charles Dollar presented in his book almost a decade ago can still be regarded as valid. To keep electronic information continuously in an accessible and readable form means, in a secular perspective, cumulative costs which will get higher and higher with the increase in the volume of materials that are to be preserved. It is not insignificant, with regard to the cost factor, what are the technical characteristics of the electronic systems that have produced the records or other information that will be preserved permanently/for long periods in electronic form. The cost factor is also of great relevance if the goal is to preserve all the functional qualities of the original record-keeping systems. When we deal with permanent/long-term preservation, it could be generally said, that the more complicated and individual the electronic systems are, the more expensive it is to preserve the information originating from them both in the short and in the long-term perspective. This situation can be illustrated with figure 1.

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Although it is difficult to predict future developments, I think it may be possible to make some assumptions about the future costs of the preservation of information in electronic form by taking into consideration the degree of complexity of the electronic record keeping systems and other electronic information systems. The more material with a very complex structural form is taken into permanent/long-term preservation, the faster will the cumulative costs grow. It may, however be possible to influence the development of the future total costs of electronic permanent/long-term preservation by determining in advance the formats that will be accepted for use in permanent electronic preservation. This approach can be illustrated by a couple of diagrams.

Here it is first assumed that all the electronic information that is found worthy of permanent preservation will be preserved in formats which retain the original operative functions of the systems as intact as possible. In other words, this preservation policy does not take into consideration the structural qualities of the information or record-keeping systems and their effects on the future preservation costs. Since it is to be expected that the materials taken into permanent retention will also include information that originates from very complex systems, it is likely that the cumulative costs of preservation and maintenance grow considerably faster than the volume of information taken into permanent preservation. Figure 2 will illustrate the situation.

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In the long run, this kind of development with regard to costs is not likely to be acceptable. It is to be expected that reappraisal of electronic materials already chosen for permanent preservation will sooner or later be implemented to alleviate the situation. A policy which has the aim of preserving information from very complex electronic systems also comprehensively preserving simultaneously the data processing qualities of the original systems to the greatest possible extent, will sooner or later lead to a situation where the archives services concerned run out of resources. This kind of development could even result in a situation where the priority given to the preservation of records/information from complex electronic systems has the effect that the preservation of other electronic material can only take place on a reduced scale. Here one could find a parallel to the development that is taking place in the health care sector - the development in medical technologies and in the pharmaceutical field has increased the costs per unit in health care and this, for its part, has resulted in a situation where one is obliged to determine who will have the privilege of highquality treatment and who will be denied it. With regard to the management of the costs of permanent electronic preservation, there seems to be an undeniable need to pay attention to the degree of complexity of the electronic files that are accepted for permanent retention, because greater complexity means higher costs of preservation and use. It can be supposed that, on the grounds of present experience, it should be possible to determine, at least approximately, the upper, maximal level of costs for longterm preservation and use of electronic materials originating from systems representing different structural complexities. If this is a valid assumption, it must also be possible to determine a upper, maximal level of structural and technical complexity of record-keeping and information systems that can be accepted for permanent preservation in electronic form. On the other hand, it should also be possible to determine the characteristics of electronic systems and of records/information that are of such structural and technical complexity that their preservation in electronic form cannot be accepted on the grounds of costs. This situation is illustrated with figure 3.

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The following figure 4 illustrates the possible development of costs with regard to the volume of the electronic materials, assuming that the approach described above is applied to the appraisal of electronic information systems.

If the approach outlined above is used as one of the criteria in the appraisal process of electronic records, it means that the permanent preservation of records/information from systems defined as too complex does not permit the preservation of all the functional qualities of the original systems (e.g. GIS, CAD). In some cases the solution can be to preserve the information electronically in a software and hardware independent form or to print out a nucleus of the information for permanent preservation either as microfilm (COM) or paper print-outs, as indicated by Charles Dollar and others. The same records or information can, of course, be preserved in the original electronic environment for the time these systems are run. In the view of this author, the integration of the cost assessment described above into the appraisal policy of electronic records could be useful in determining the development of the future costs with regard to the permanent preservation of information in electronic form. This is necessary because I think that there is a great temptation to seek expensive technical solutions for permanently preserving all functional qualities of electronic systems. We should try to prevent the realization of the vision presented by Charles Dollar where the electronic records found worthy of permanent (continuing) preservation go through continuous 53

reappraisal processes or where their usability could be endangered by dissolution of the creating organizations.8 In order to avoid such a future, it seems to be necessary to pay more attention to the cost factor and its predictability for as long a time perspective as possible. I think that reflexions of this kind are useful to take into account when archival policy concerning permanent preservation of electronic materials is considered. #

C.f. e.g. Luciana Duranti & Heather McNeil, The Protection of the Integrity of Electronic Records: An Overview of the UB S-MA S Resear ch Proje ct, Archiva ria 42 (Fall 1996), pp. 46-47; Wendy Duff, Ensuring the Preservation of Reliable E vidence: A Research Project F unded b y the NHP RC, Archiva ria 42 (Fall 1996), pp. 28-45.
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C.f. e.g. Paul Marsden, When is the Future? Comparative Notes on the Electronic Record-keeping Projects of the University o f Pittsburgh a nd the U niversity of B ritish Columb ia, Archiva ria 43 (Spring 1997), pp.159-173.
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Proceedings of the DLM-Forum on electronic records, Brussels, 18-20 December 1996 (European Archives News INSAR, Supplement 2, s.l. 1997). Guidelines on best practices for using electronic records (European Archives News INSAR , Supplement III, s.l.1997), e.g. pp. 3, 34, 36. Charles M . Dollar, Archival Theory and Information Technologies, Informatics and Documentation Series 1 (Ancona, 1992), pp. 65-67, 79-80.
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Dollar, Archival Theory and Information Technologies, pp.53-55.

Duranti & McNeil, The Protection of the Integrity of Electronic Records: An Overview of the UBS-MAS Research Project, p. 60.
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For problems raised in such circumstances, c.f. e.g. Michael Wettengel, Zur Rekonstruktion digitaler Datenbestnde aus der D DR nac h der W iedervere inigung, Der Archivar Heft 4 (November 1997), cols 735-748.

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