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Agency under fire for decision not to save federal Web content

National Archives and Records Administration halts its archiving of agency sites every two years

By Heather Havenstein
April 11, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is coming under fire for discontinuing its policy of taking a "digital snapshot" of all federal agency and congressional public Web sites at the end of congressional and presidential terms.

NARA, which until this year had collected a "harvests" of federal Web sites at the end of presidential and congressional terms, said in a recent memo that it would discontinue the practice at the end of George W. Bush's presidency.

A spokeswoman for NARA Friday asserted that the content is already saved by each agency as permanent records.

"One day in time does not really tell the story of a federal agency," the spokeswoman said. "We decided that the snapshot itself didn't really have any value added to it. The evolution of a Web site over four years does tell the story of an executive agency, what their priorities were, what their initiatives were."

The spokeswoman compared the preservation efforts of individual agencies to "a documentary film" and the snapshot to a "still photograph."

But some observers were quick to criticize the elimination of the harvests, noting that NARA had saved millions of Web pages during harvests in 2004 and 2006.

Coby Logen, a blogger at DotGovWatch, noted that although NARA has contended that nongovernmental organizations can take snapshots of the Web sites, depending on a nonprofit to perform national archiving is risky.

"The last executive branch Web harvest that NARA conducted preserved 75 million Web pages, many which will be valuable records for historians in the coming decades," Logen said. "Not capturing federal Web sites now many mean losing millions of Web pages authored under the Bush administration when leadership changes in January 2009."

John Wonderlich, a blogger at the Sunlight Foundation, argued that NARA should continue supporting the Web Harvest program. The Sunlight Foundation supports and develops new Internet technologies to make information about the federal government available.

"Our national government has a responsibility to protect and document its history," Wonderlich added. "They are uniquely positioned to do so; no one else has both the reliable public mandate and the public accountability necessary for protecting historical documents.

"The fact that digital preservation is done by others outside NARA isn't an excuse for NARA to abdicate their responsibility, but an argument that they should be capable of fulfilling it," he said. "As members of Congress and federal agencies increasingly move their work online, robust digital archiving will only become more important, so we can understand how our government is performing its duties."

Read more about Government IT in Computerworld's Government IT Topic Center.

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