Friday, March 03, 2006

paperbacks, digital records, and re-de-classified documents

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Today's New York Times headlines (which I get emailed to me everyday. I get the feed too, but I've been in the habit of reading the Times like this for too long.) included THREE articles of interest to librarians.

The National Archivist has finally taken a stand on the Bush administration's/intelligence agencies' reclassification of long-ago declassified documents. Initially reported a couple weeks ago, the story broke when a number of historians found that documents they had photocopied in the past were no longer available. The reason these documents needed to be re-classified is of course not public information, but since the documents were once available, the silliness of classifying some of this stuff is easy to see:
Among the 50 withdrawn documents that [historian] Mr. Aid found in his own files is a 1948 memorandum on a C.I.A. scheme to float balloons over countries behind the Iron Curtain and drop propaganda leaflets. It was reclassified in 2001 even though it had been published by the State Department in 1996.

Another historian, William Burr, found a dozen documents he had copied years ago whose reclassification he considers "silly," including a 1962 telegram from George F. Kennan, then ambassador to Yugoslavia, containing an English translation of a Belgrade newspaper article on China's nuclear weapons program.

Today's report noted that Allen Weinstein (the chief archivist for the U.S.) announced a moratorium on reclassifying documents until an audit is performed.

"Archivist Urges U.S. to Reopen Classified Files" by Scott Shane. New York Times 3/3/06
"U.S. Reclassifies Many Documents in Secret Review" by Scott Shane. New York Times 2/21/06

And then there was the article on the ongoing process of developing a protocol to ensure that current digital records will be readable in the future:
With government records, reports and documents increasingly being created and stored in digital form, there is a software threat to electronic access to government information and archives. The problem is that public information can be locked in proprietary software whose document formats become obsolete or cannot be read by people using software from another company.

In other words, when the gov't agencies create documents that are only preserved in Microsoft's proprietary software (a Word document, for example), they may not be accessible in the future if Microsoft changes or discontinues the software, or the access may be limited to those who can afford the software. So an alliance of "30 companies, trade groups, academic institutions and professional organizations" announced that they will begin developing the "OpenDocument Format," an open-source format for gov docs (and any other docs) that will be readable across a variety of software. Apparently, the Open XML format that Microsoft is pushing isn't sufficient, but the article doesn't get into why. A story to follow...

"Push to Create Standards for Documents" by Steve Lohr. New York Times 3/3/06


The editorial I enjoyed not just because I'm a librarian but mainly because I have a large, highly dilapidated paperback collection. Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote a lovely elegy for a much-loved, much-annotated collection of classics printed on cheap pulp and bound with brittle glue, noting how indipensible the editions are, with their grad-school notes pencilled in. I have an edition of Absalom, Absalom! held together with multiple layers of tape and the pressure the two books on either side of it on the shelf. I too, can use individual pages as bookmarks, but I don't foresee getting rid of the copy where I fell in love with Faulkner, where I jotted my (brilliant, of course) comments in the margins whilst writing my undergraduate thesis.

"Yellowing Paper, Stiffening Glue and the Sudden Demise of a Library" by Verlyn Klinkenborg. New York Times 3/3/06