Historians, libraries lose fight for digital government records

Copyright © 2000 Nando Media
Copyright © 2000 Associated Press


WASHINGTON (March 6, 2000 10:21 a.m. EST http://www.nandotimes.com) - A group of historians and librarians opposed to a rule letting federal agencies destroy computer records as long as they keep a copy on paper or microfilm lost a Supreme Court appeal Monday.

The court, without comment, turned away an appeal in which the librarians and historians argued that paper records cannot be searched and indexed as easily as electronic records.

Federal law requires the National Archives to set standards for preserving government records. Agencies are barred from destroying records without the archives' approval.

In 1995, the archives issued a rule intended to avoid overload in government agency computer systems.

The rule let agencies delete certain e-mails and other records from desktop computers once they are no longer useful to the agency and have been copied to the agency's official recordkeeping system. Such systems may be in electronic form, paper or microfilm.

The American Library Association, the American Historical Association and Ralph Nader's Public Citizen challenged the rule in federal court. They argued that computer records can reveal more than paper about the making of policy - about who saw and revised a document before it reached final form.

A federal judge threw out the rule, saying Archivist John W. Carlin exceeded his authority by authorizing destruction of records reflecting substantive agency decisions in addition to "housekeeping" records.

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia reinstated the rule last August. The appeals court agreed that "electronic recordkeeping has advantages over paper recordkeeping," but added that federal law does not require all agencies to have electronic systems.

In the appeal acted on Monday, lawyers for the historians and librarians said the law lets the archivist adopt different rules for various agencies "that distinguish electronic records ... worth preserving from those that are not."

Government lawyers said records kept on desktop computers might not be searched any more easily than those transferred to paper recordkeeping. In any event, they said, Carlin is considering revisions to the policy.

The case is Public Citizen vs. Carlin, 99-782.