The Four Lies Destroying Records Management – Lie #2: Storage vs Preservation

Lie #2: ‘Storage’ and ‘Preservation’ are the same thing.

In the months following the Presidential election several prominent media outlets, including PBS and New Yorker Magazine, ran opinion pieces forcefully reminding the Trump administration of their obligations under the Presidential Records Act to “take all such steps as may be necessary to assure that the activities, deliberations, decisions, and policies that reflect the performance of the President’s constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties are adequately documented and that such records are preserved and maintained as Presidential records.”

I’m not questioning the motivations of these publications. I’m sure they want the Trump White House held accountable for its actions just as closely as previous administrations had been held accountable for theirs.  But I do question whether the writers of these opinion pieces understand exactly what they are asking for…and if it is something anyone in the White House is capable of providing.  

Federal records are defined as “all recorded information.” Storing records (i.e., information) is easy. Preserving information, however, is far more difficult. This is because storage and preservation are two very different things.

If I put a T-bone steak in my refrigerator – where it is readily available, but also vulnerable to spoilage – that is storage. If I put that same steak in my freezer – where it is slightly less accessible but can be protected from harm for a much longer period of time – that is preservation.

Similarly, if I keep a paper record in my office desk drawer, I am storing it. But if I bring that same paper record down to my company’s records center and have the corporate records manager categorize it, box it up, and put it on a shelf for the remainder of its appropriate retention period, I am preserving it.

Storing and preserving electronic information is no different. I can store an electronic record just about anywhere: file shares, thumb drives, laptops, even printer memory is capable of storage. But if I want to preserve it, my list of options becomes a great deal shorter.

36 CFR § 1236.20 describes “appropriate records keeping systems” for agency (and White House) electronic records. It states, in part, that these systems must “Prevent the unauthorized access, modification, or deletion of declared records, and ensure that appropriate audit trails are in place to track use of the records.” It also mandates that these systems “…enable the migration of records and their associated metadata to new storage media or formats in order to avoid loss due to media decay or technology obsolescence.” In other words, these systems must be capable of preserving the records, not just storing them.

But were the Trump administration’s records preserved in records keeping systems compliant with 36 CFR § 1236.20? I can’t say for sure. I haven’t managed Presidential records since the last Bush administration. But, based on my experiences over nearly a quarter century supporting Federal records management, I can tell you it is highly unlikely.

So, if we assume that some – possibly all – of the Trump administration’s electronic records were being stored, rather than preserved, what does this mean to historians and journalists? What does this mean for members of the Trump administration, including the President himself? And, most importantly, what does this mean to the American public?

Unfortunately, this is bad for everyone. The journalists and historians writing about the Trump presidency need to know the information they receive from FOIA requests is authentic and that no electronic records have been doctored or destroyed. Members of the Trump administration need to be able to prove the exact same thing. And the American people, as always, deserve to know the truth, whatever that may be. Sadly, if the Trump administration was storing their records rather than preserving them, none of this is possible.   

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The powerful forces who want to destroy records management need you to believe that storing information – in their expensive repositories, in their massive collaboration platforms, in their giant cloud environments – is the same as preserving information. It is not. And until this is widely understood and records preservation is a requirement for all organizations – both public and private – the world will continue to drown in misinformation, disinformation, and lies.

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Next up, The Four Lies Destroying Records Management – Lie #3: Security vs Access   


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