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Michael Miller


By Michael Miller
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On the Record

There will be enough political stress over the next several days. This week, I offer the pipe of peace and urge thought and action on the most nonpartisan of subjects. Though the focus here is on local governments and public agencies, it all can be applied just as easily to businesses of all sizes and to your personal work. People in authority over public records, archives, libraries and data of all kinds need to dedicate the near future to checking, rechecking, rethinking, revising and re-envisioning their plans and procedures for keeping those materials safe for now and for the future. Clocks are ticking all over.

If you’re a data caretaker or policy maker, some problems you thought you had licked a long time ago may be coming back to haunt you. The true life expectancy of optical media (CD, DVD, Blu-Ray) is unknown, and it’s clear from published reports and personal observation that some types are failing faster than anticipated. In particular, many writeable CDs from 10 years ago or less are giving error messages, with demagnetized spots that make some or all data irretrievable. Software needed to access some data is no longer published or supported, and may no longer run on newer machines or operating systems. CDs themselves are soon going the way of microfilm and vinyl records.

Simply digitizing material didn’t mean the work was over. There’s no longer a good rationale for not digitizing everything.

Whether the information you care for is needed for daily transactions or historical completeness, you’ve got to get it out of there, in multiple copies and formats. Put it out there online for safekeeping, maybe even for correction and improvement. The National Archives’ “Citizen Archivist” program outsources the job of tagging, transcribing and writing articles about scanned archival documents to thousands of enthusiastic volunteers. Eventually, all records will be online, well-indexed, well-documented and even preserved on personal computers around the world. By engaging its customers and allowing them to invest themselves in NARA, they are building up a base of support. These volunteers will fight for NARA when the time comes.

Counties across New York have cut funds to local historical societies and libraries. I’ve collected stories about public libraries closing in two dozen states. County and town clerk staffs are being slashed. Our local memory and even our ability to conduct some critical record-oriented transactions are among the first sandbags being tossed from the balloon basket.

Funding is tough all over. It’s going to get tougher, so failure to act and to invest now will close doors and drawers that need to stay open.

A few weeks ago, as volunteers for the clerk of Lincoln County, Idaho were working to digitize county records, it was discovered that some of the paper birth certificates, marriage licenses, court records, land deeds and permits dating to the 1930s had been destroyed by paper-eating insects. The records had been kept in what they thought was a safe, secure vault. In Hamilton County, Ohio (Cincinnati), five ancient record books were discovered in a dumpster after some horrible mix-up at the county recorder’s office.

One of our local school districts lost a century of records when a pipe burst and the boxes got wet. It mattered to the person who needed verification of employment in the 1970s for a pension problem. Some of the survey maps of Nassau County’s hundreds of housing developments walked out of the county clerk’s office years ago. It might matter if you need to research one of those properties.

Given the maintenance situation in some of our county buildings, you don’t have to be Hans Christian Anderson to imagine pipes bursting or some other sudden calamity that can take out a room full of old paper and film.

Many of the earliest public records of the towns of Hempstead, North Hempstead and Oyster Bay were lost due to vermin or neglect. Incomplete records have been sources of public disputes all the way to modern times.

So if any public agency doesn’t have a disaster recovery and a “continuity of operations” plan in place and in action, it needs them yesterday. The day before yesterday.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: