Thursday, November 22, 2007

Archival disputes over email date back to 1989

The question of how archivists should handle electronic records is rather odd. One gets the sense that electronic records are perennially new, that there is no prior experience with them. In a reading for one of my archives classes, I've just found out about a fascinating legal case from America.

The case was called Armstrong vs. the Executive Office of the President (1989). In brief, those who brought the suit argued that the President's office used an email system from 1985 and that these records were in danger of being destroyed and/or not being archived properly - the suit sought to demand preservation. Much of the case involves the specifics of the US political system, but some of it is relevant to other situations. For example, courts established that electronic records and hard copies versions of same are not equivalent. Indeed, one court ruled that electronic records are the fuller version. This fits well with something I've covered in class a number of times; the idea that a big part of an archival record is the context, the web of relationships from which it emerges.

The article concludes by looking at how to develop policies that handle email. Of course, then you get the problem of people dodging the requirements by only communicating (or mostly) orally. But that's a whole other kind of problem.

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