Agencies frustrated by order to save Web pages

The National Archives and Records Administration's requirement that federal agencies hand over snapshots of their Web pages has again drawn fire from agency Webmasters and records officials. On Jan. 12, Deputy Archivist of the United States Lewis Bellardo sent a memo to agencies ordering them to hand over electronic records showing what their publicly available Web site pages looked like before the transition of power to President Bush. The move is part of an ongoing effort at NARA to preserve for posterity the online presence of every presidential administration from the Clinton presidency onward. It is still unclear how many agencies will meet the late-March deadline. But at a meeting last week, agency officials continued to press representatives from NARA about the feasibility of the project. "Nobody said it's not worth doing," said Michael Miller, director of NARA's Modern Records division, after being peppered with questions by agency webmasters about how NARA intends to complete the project. "People recognize this is an important snapshot for historical purposes." A spokesperson for Donald Neilson, director of Information Management Services at the Veterans Affairs Department, said that the Web archival process needs to be addressed and that his department intends to examine the issue. NARA is also working with agencies to establish Web archival standards. At least one agency Webmaster has questioned NARA's authority to collect federal Web pages in the first place, suggesting that the contents of a Web site are "non-record" material. Miller disputed that claim, saying that the material contained on agency sites would qualify as records in most cases. While some agencies might argue that portions of their sites should be classified as non-record, he said, the task of sorting the material into two categories would be more time-consuming than the actual archival process now under way. Miller noted that the real purpose of last week's meeting was to identify those elements in NARA's instructions of Jan. 12 that were "difficult or impossible to live with." Agency officials asked Miller whether the federal Web portal, FirstGov.gov, could be used to transfer all the Web pages to the National Archives. Miller's response, that it wasn't possible, piqued the ire of some agency officials who feel NARA and the General Services Administration should resolve the issue of how to collect and store the information. GSA has played a leading role in the FirstGov project. A joint GSA-NARA effort probably wouldn't solve the problem, said Mike Carlson, director of NARA's Electronic and Special Media Records Services division and the person in charge of the logistical end of the record-making process. Therefore, agencies must submit the records in some approved format, such as digital linear tape or CD ROM, before the end of next month. Carlson reported that as of Feb. 13, NARA had received 38 Web site submissions, but that most of them were from components of various agencies, such as individual regional offices that maintain their own sites. Carlson doesn't know whether all submissions will be received by the deadline, but he said that, so far, "the agencies have been extremely cooperative" in complying with NARA's directive.
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