Parchment Was Better

June 02, 1995|By Tom Webb | Tom Webb,Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- The original copy of the Constitution, elegantly penned on parchment, remains in splendid condition at the National Archives more than 200 years after it was written.

But Americans no longer use parchment and quill pens. Nowadays, even important documents are created on computer screens, reproduced on photocopiers, reworked by e-mail, transmitted by fax, and recorded on videotape.

How long will those records last? Hard to say -- but archivists are certain it won't be 200 years. Videotapes deteriorate. E-mail gets deleted. Computer records become incompatible with new technology.

"The 1990s threatens to be the least-documented history in mankind because we are losing our data so rapidly," said Susan Fox, executive director of the Society of American Archivists.

Preserving the fleeting records of the electronic age is just one challenge facing archivists of the 1990s. Now that task falls to former Gov. John Carlin of Kansas, newly confirmed by the Senate to head the National Archives, the federal agency dedicated to preserving America's most important historical documents.

While the National Archives is famous as home of the American trinity -- the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights -- its real work is to preserve history by saving important original documents, tossing out the rest, and ensuring access to the public.

"The figure archivists use is that only 3 to 5 percent is worth keeping, and the hard part of the job is in what you discard," Ms. Fox said.

Except that these days, the harder part may be preserving records in the first place. Just as libraries have been changed forever by computers and electronic data bases, the job of archivist has also been swept up in a revolution.

Mr. Carlin will oversee an agency of breathtaking scope: 4 billion pieces of paper, 2 million maps, 9 million aerial photographs. It runs nine presidential libraries.

"There is a whole lot of paper still floating around that was created in the 17th or the 18th or the 19th century that is just fine," said Mary Ronan, an archivist at the National Archives. "But I don't think anybody thinks computer-generated materials are going to last that long."

Here are some of the tricky issues that archivists must confront:

* Changing Technology: Archivists must deal with records stored via obsolescent equipment, such as out-of-date punch cards, computer tapes, microfilm, or anything that requires an old machine to read.

"You can pick up a piece of paper that George Washington wrote and you can read it," Ms. Ronan said. "But if you pick up a piece of computer tape, and you can't figure out what the coding is, you're going to have a big problem."

* Disappearing Records: Videotape, audio tape, and an assortment of other items can crumble or fade after only a few years. Another way records disappear: electronic messages that are routinely deleted, such as e-mail.

* Political Resistance: Even from the grave, Richard M. Nixon is fighting a battle to keep his famous tapes from becoming public. He's winning, too; 98 percent of the Nixon tapes are still private.

Mr. Nixon is certainly the most celebrated example -- but hardly the only one -- of an official wary of historians, journalists and authors digging through his past.

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