Feds' lack of preserving digital records reaching urgent stage

Growth in electronic documents continues to outstrip government's ability to store them, and computing task force calls on agencies to create enterprisewide solutions.

A group sounded the alarm on Tuesday over the government's inability to store its ever-increasing electronic information.

"The problem is urgent," said Fran Berman, director of the San Diego Supercomputer Center and professor of high-performance computing at the University of California-San Diego. "If you want to have access to data tomorrow, you have to think about preserving it today."

Berman co-chaired a task force on sustainable digital preservation and access, which brought together officials from academia, business, libraries and government agencies to discuss one of the biggest challenges organizations face today: how to access and preserve digital information in an age when the amount of data is rapidly outstripping the capacity to store it.

The group issued a report on Tuesday that concluded the amount of digital data would continue to grow faster than the government's storage capacity, making the need to find a sustainable economic model for preserving digital information solution a top-level concern for federal agencies and other organizations.

The task force was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in partnership with the Library of Congress, the Joint Information Systems Committee of the United Kingdom, the Council on Library and Information Resources, and the National Archives and Records Administration.

The group found that organizations don't have preservation plans or economic models for the large amount of data the public will be need in the future, according to Berman. Part of the problem is most funding for digital preservation comes from one-time grants, which help fund projects but don't specify who will take the responsibility of carrying that data in the future.

"While storage and technological issues have been at the forefront of the discussion on digital information, relatively little focus has been on the economic aspect of preserving vast amounts of digital data fundamental to the modern world," said Lucy Nowell, program director for the office of cyber infrastructure at the National Science Foundation, in an e-mailed statement.

Berman said the government seems to have recognized the importance of preserving digital records, but struggles to purchase and build the storage capacity to do so. She suggested that agencies work closely together to create a holistic system that would preserve data, rather than create their own solutions.

"I think it's pressing; if we do not do it now, it will overrun us," Berman said. "One of the exciting things about the new administration is the way they used technology coming into the presidency. . . . It's exciting to think what could be done during this administration to create those economies of scale and holistic cyber infrastructures."