Resource of the month: ICA Study n°13-1: Authenticity of Electronic Records, a report by ICA to UNESCO

For this month resource of the month, we wanted to highlight a resource created by International Council on Archives Committee on Archival Legal Matters, now known as the Expert Group on Legal Matters, entitled Authenticity of Electronic Records: A Report Prepared for UNESCO.   

We have written a brief summary of this resource giving you an idea of its content as well as the reason why it was chosen.   

Resource Summary     

Why we have selected it?   

World Digital Preservation Day was celebrated on 3rd November this year. From the outset, the question of authenticity has been, and remains, one of the key challenges for digital preservation. This report was written exactly 20 years ago this month. Highlighting it as this month’s resource of the month offers readers the chance to reflect on how much or how little has been achieved in this area in the intervening 20 years.  

Reflecting back on the report can show how much of it is still valid and  needs addressing, while at the same time evaluating how far archivists have come and improved on the situation since then. Concretely, the report can be used as a tool to reflect on the specific situation in each reader’s countries, as progress made will differ from country to country.  

The report’s first section talks about the then new (September 2001) International Standard ISO 15489-1, Information and documentation—Records Management, which was developed so “...that appropriate attention and protection is given to all records, and that the evidence and information they contain can be retrieved more efficiently and effectively, using standard practices and procedures." How has the experience of 20 years of implementing the standard been, and has it lived up to its expectations regarding protecting authentic electronic records? 

The next section of the report concerns technology, arguing that “In an electronic environment there are more weak points threatening authenticity than there are for “conventional” documents and more complex measures are necessary to preserve authenticity in an electronic environment. Migrating the electronic information from one media to another is an example of the more complex preservation problems. This more complex processing of documents endangers their authenticity and requires that more be done to protect it […] This[…] puts pressures on such traditional legal values as authenticity. Nations and archivists need to adjust to these pressures.” How well have “Nations and archivists” adjusted to these “pressures” in the intervening 20 years? 

The third section covers a questionnaire that addresses archival legislations and other measures in place around authenticity. It concludes that “the authenticity of good electronic record keeping requires ensuring that electronic business process routinely involve the capture of the records necessary to document them; designing electronic systems that will capture authentic records; ensuring that the integrity of electronic records is securely maintained; ensuring that electronic records created and captured now will remain accessible and useable for as long as they are 
needed; and building a culture of record keeping among managers and workers.”
To what extent have these aspirations been achieved in the twenty years since the report was written, and, were the aspirations adequate to the tasks at hand? 

The report then goes on to acknowledge many important research and legislative initiatives in the field, but that “there is not enough cooperation or links between the legislator and the researcher. This means that the legislator cannot benefit from the results of these projects.” Have such concerns now been dealt with in different countries? 

The report concludes that “there is a great deal of research into the authenticity of electronic records underway. It would be a wasteful redundancy to embark on yet another study on how to preserve authentic electronic records. What is needed now is an evaluation of the research completed and a transfer of the knowledge from the researcher to the archivist. Much of the research is going on at local, national and super-national levels and must be harmonized to prevent serious inconsistent treatment of electronic records to ensure their authenticity. This harmonization must be done while, at the same time, keeping in mind the different national legal traditions and cultures.” Again, to what extent has this been achieved or not?  

The very final part of the report includes 6 concrete recommendations regarding training of archivists, the need for a global survey on authenticity, reaching greater agreement on the use of terminology, the need for UNESCO to develop guidelines on preserving authentic electronic records, the need for UNESCO to convene a global conference of high ranking decision makers about the importance of authentic records, and the need for securing adequate resources and organisations for protecting authentic records.  

Where are we at with this ongoing process? 

What will you find in this resource?  

The report is an outcome of the ICA’s XIVth International Congress held in Seville, Spain in 2000, which emphasized that archivists must ensure continuing access to the content and functionality of authentic electronic records. The Congress called upon National Archivists to provide the leadership to ensure the preservation and accessibility to authentic records to secure the rights of citizens in public information. UNESCO, likewise, had initiated several international conventions and recommendations regarding the preservation and accessibility to authentic records. Standard setting to preserve authentic electronic records in the field of culture and information was identified as an important and universally valued task of UNESCO that is central to its mission. The conference highlighted that both ICA and UNESCO shared a common interest in the long-term storage of authentic electronic information. With this interest in mind, ICA and UNESCO entered into an agreement for ICA to study the issue. ICA was commissioned to report to UNESCO and “formulate recommendations for further studies and concrete projects in this matter with a view to establishing legal and technical procedures for ensuring the legal evidence of electronic documents in (the) case of migration of these materials---and in (the) case of transfer to archival institutions.” (Contract 403.003.1, dated 29 March 2001).  

The report deals with key aspects of the importance of authenticity, and factors which affect the ability of archivists to determine and preserve a record’s authenticity. This includes authentication, the impact of (what were then) new technologies, national legislations. It highlighted ongoing projects and made recommendations for what is now the future. 

Discover the Resource by clicking here