Why does M-19-21 Digitization Matter?

On the plus side, it’s not every day that the National Archives and records management are trending on Twitter.

For those of you who may have missed it, the National Archives was in the news and in the middle of a Twitter meltdown — yes, the National Archives — for a digitized promotional image (the one to the far right in the post below). The concern was that the modified image erased negative signs in the 2017 march that preceded President Trump’s Inauguration. The original Washington Post article is headlined National Archives exhibit blurs images critical of President Trump.

US National Archives - NARA M-19-21 digitization

Now the purpose of this M-19-21 digitization post is not to weigh in on the partisan furor from both sides that preceded the apology, although reading all the posts — just search on @USNatArchives if you want a flavor — provides insights into our country’s divisions. Rather, I wanted to provide just two perspectives, one personal and one professional.

On the personal side, the characterizations in some of the posts of the people at the Archives — yes, government agencies are not just “agencies” but real life people — make me sad. I know a lot of the people at NARA. They work hard. Truthfully, no one has ever accused the NARA staff of being overly flashy marketers and self-promoters, but my experience has been that these folks care about what they do and were likely horrified at being the center of attention.

On the other hand, if Phineas T. Barnum was right that “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” then maybe there’s a silver lining to all this. Perhaps it will remind us of the critical role that NARA plays when it comes to preserving digital records. The reason NARA’s mission is so important today — reflected in the recent M-19-21 requirements — is that preserving the nation’s memory for future generations at a time of rapid technology disruption (see an earlier post, Are President Trump’s Tweet Records?) is incredibly complex.

As a long-ago history major, as a technologist for nearly three decades at two industry associations, and most recently as amateur genealogy sleuth (see The Search for My Grandparents), I worry about the digital amnesia that will result in the future from a failure NOW to care about records and documents.

My friend Cheryl McKinnon from Forrester Research, who is far smarter than me about these issues, calls this ticking time bomb digital fragility:

“Digital fragility has emerged as a risk to digital business, but CIOs and CMOs are failing to confront it. Firms [and government agencies] must preserve and protect digital information to ensure that it’s available when needed to meet business, legal, or knowledge management needs. Corporate memory, brand assets, and customer data may evaporate if measures aren’t taken to ensure its availability and accessibility.”

That’s why M-19-21 digitization is so important at this particular point in time. Yes, M-19-21 carries the usual government set of compliance boxes that need to be checked. But more importantly, it represents a framework that will require agencies to move away from antiquated, manual and siloed approaches to information management and take steps now to insure that the nation’s memory is preserved through digital records.

In this process of modernization, it is necessary — but not sufficient — for records managers to raise their gaze from paper and embrace the unique challenges (and opportunities) created by disruptive technologies. The other half of the equation is that senior agency officials (SAORMs in the M-19-21 digitization vocabulary) must meet them halfway and acknowledge that information preservation is not just something to be met grudgingly and handed off to “someone,” but embraced as a key strategic driver for future digital government.

#NARACompliance #M-19-21