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Solutions without problems are revealing

Eleven years ago at the Nevada Legislature, Assemblymember Bob Beers introduced legislation to start converting public records in Nevada to digital formats. His Assembly Bill 260 provided for “a medium for the storage of records electronically that requires a machine to access the information contained within the medium [including] without limitation, magnetic and optical media.”

This kind of came out of nowhere. The state’s records management and archives folks were suddenly faced with the possibility of having a solution forced on them to solve a problem they didn’t have. They already had the authority to move to new formats if there was reason. Beers’ bill didn’t mandate evolving to digital, but enactment of the bill would certainly create pressure for just that.

The workhorse of records management then (and now) was microfilm, which had been in use at least since the 1920s. As Beers tried to make a case for his legislation, local government records managers lined up behind the Nevada State Archives and Records Management agency to try to stop the legislation (Clark County was a notable exception, for some reason).

At a hearing on the bill, Beers told a tale of how, as a radio exec, he was able to keep transferring records required by the Federal Communications Commission from a Radio Shack word processing format to WordPerfect to Word, the point being that modern means make migrating from one format to the next easy. He was something like a 43-year old computer geek, bewitched by the latest gear. And he thought the records managers were old fogies.

The problem was that there was a lot that was unknown about much of the new technology. Compact discs, for instance, which started out as an audio format and then were adapted to records storage, had all kinds of anomalies that researchers didn’t understand. When I told Beers that one records manager had told me that the best current expert guess on the life of CDs was six years. Beers told me he had never had problems with his own CDs. That kind of anecdotal approach indicated that there was a good deal he didn’t know. I assume if he had reliable science to the contrary, he would have told me about it.

At that same hearing, numerous state and local officials testified. State archives and records management administrator Guy Louis Rocha was particularly ardent in making his case. When he finished, Assemblymember Carl Christensen said, “Mr. Rocha, I’ve got to say that was a very passionate presentation. … You are the most enthusiastic archivist I’ve ever known.” Rocha quipped, “I’m one of the extroverts in the profession. There aren’t too many.” When Rocha finished, few of Beers’ arguments were left unrebutted.

Legislators are often very anti-intellectual, showing contempt for experts. But such a Mount Rushmore lineup of Nevada’s state and local records managers – many of whom were known to legislators in their home towns – was deadly for Beers’ bill.

“As I watched the parade of old media and heard the stories of their frailties, I wished I had a strip of microfilm and a lighter,” Beer said, as though microfilm stock was the flammable nitrate film stock used in making silent movies. In fact, microfilm is very durable and long lasting. Digital formats have proven to be neither.

The funny thing is, CDs were already on their way out as Beers’ legislation was being processed. Sales of them during that decade declined by almost a fourth.

Last week I was interested to read in the Atlantic Monthly that the Library of Congress is still trying to figure out the anomalies of compact discs. “All of the modern formats weren’t really made to last a long period of time,” said LOC preservation research and testing chief Fenella France.

“Even CDs made by the same company in the same year and wrapped in identical packaging might have totally different life spans,” the Atlantic reported.

A storage format with a random, unpredictable duration of existence would have been a fiasco in long-term records storage. In Beers’ Radio Shack-to-WordPerfect-to-Word example, there would be no way to know for certain when to migrate to the next format. Misjudge it, and data is lost.

Meanwhile, microfilm chugs along, still doing its marvelous work.

Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.

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