November 18, 2010
Which Government Documents Can Be Confidently Migrated to Digital Form?
Shannon E. Martin, Professor of Journalism, Indiana University, Bloomington, and Gerry Lanosga, Assistant Professor of Journalism, Ball State University, review historical uses and value of public documents to aid those responsible for describing which government documents can be confidently migrated to digital form in The Historical and Legal Underpinnings of Access to Public Documents, 102 LLJ 613 (2010). The authors present the problems for distribution and use of government documents today in the following terms:
The changing environment of government-held information from paper format to digital archive has spawned concerns from every group of stakeholders. Among the issues raised recently is that of authentication for public records distributed on the Internet. A major part of authentication is the question of legitimacy. Without paper documents in hand, and all the telltale marks those pages carry, so that we quickly notice if text has been altered or pages are missing, how can those who search the web for government documents know that what is before them is as it should be? The continuing concern about authenticity, existing today, as it did millennia ago in Athens, suggests that this element is one we consistently expect government to protect.
The concern for authenticity sometimes contravenes government efforts at efficiency and the trend of contracting with outside companies who actually do the work of data generation, collection, storage, and retrieval—that is, the privatization of government information. By the turn of the twenty-first century, many articles had been written about the issue, but few offered comprehensive solutions. One survey of state-level practices in 2000 suggested that access to government records, which were increasingly generated and held in private hands, was uneven. Some government entities were better poised to manage the private sector’s contribution across all agencies, while others relied either on the courts or on case-by-case decisions to decide when to bar access.
From this interesting article's conclusion:
The governments of working democracies, as long ago as the early Greek states, recognize the value of public access to government records as a means of keeping bureaucrats accountable for their activities, but they also understand the value of public records as a way to educate the public through authentic or official text. If we now recognize these sometimes competing interests—accountability and authenticity—when documenting government-held information, we can better address the needs of both government and the public in accessing these sorts of records.
Clearly, too, the uses of these records do affect our perception of how they should be made available. Though the text or fixed-form information may not be transformed by collection, use, or storage, the way the records affect our thinking is changed. The immediacy of online distribution may create instant concern among privacy advocates, but the offending or worrisome information may quickly be replaced when the site is refreshed, leaving no trace. In contrast, paper based records with obvious insertions, corrections, or notation often appear to the reviewer as more authentic and therefore more authoritative. While statutory law tries to address these sorts of differences, the ever-changing information environment is difficult to anticipate, leaving the courts to sort out and contextualize new situations through the litigation process.