Need a Punch Card? Ask the National Archives

3 min read
  • Document & Records Management

Next time you’re tempted to complain about your jobs, keep in mind that things could be worse: You could still be doing it on punch cards.

In fact, organizations such as the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) federal agency still keeps punch card readers and other “vintage media readers” around in case people need them, or are submitting data to the archives on such media, Leslie Johnston, then NARA’s director of digital preservation and now director of development and tool management, tells Zach Noble in Federal Computer Week.

“I am preserving every file format that has ever existed on the web, or that any of you have ever used in your work on a daily basis,” Johnston says. “In one transfer from one agency, we received not only their email, their Word documents, their PDFs, their PowerPoints — we actually received the entire contents of their hard drives.”

To keep from having a “digital dark ages” of losing access to data, best practices are typically to migrate data periodically to new types of storage media, as well as to modern file formats, so that the data remains accessible. But the NARA has a dual mandate to offer records in both modern, accessible formats as well as to maintain the original, “authentic” file formats, Johnston says.

In addition to being able to read records in “surprisingly outdated” formats, which is why it needs to maintain a stable of various kinds of readers such as disc and tape players, the agency also gets requests for data in all manner of formats, Noble writes.

Hence the punch cards.

The NARA also now has more control over what’s considered to be a federal record, based on legislation implemented by President Barack Obama in late 2014—the first time since the passage of the Federal Records Act in 1950 that the definition of a federal record has changed, writes Adam Mazmanian in Federal Computer Week.

The legislation “gives the National Archive and Records Administration new authority to make rules about what is and is not a federal record,” Mazmanian writes. “It also enshrines in law current administration policy of preserving electronic and digital records in their original form, and transferring them to the Archive in keeping with records schedules.”

While President Obama had already instructed federal agencies to store all digital records in their original electronic formats by 2019, the NARA now has the authority to issue rules, rather than simply offer guidance, about how to do that, Mazmanian writes. The NARA’s Archivist is also directed to keep agency heads from deleting data, calling on the Attorney General and Congress to help if necessary, he adds.

2014 also marked the year Johnston joined the NARA as what she said was the first time someone had been directly tasked in charge of digital preservation. Before joining NARA, she had been in charge of digital preservation and repository development at the Library of Congress. Her tasks include making a digital archive of the Obama administration as it plans the transition to a new President next year.

Altogether, NARA is responsible for a lot of data—as much as 500 petabytes by 2020, Noble writes. Johnston is hoping to use analytics and machine intelligence to help her determine which information needs to be kept, writes Billy Mitchell in FedScoop. “If we get a transfer of a million emails, how many of them are actually records, and how many of them are lunch orders?” she was quoted as saying.

Such AI tools could probably also end up being handy in the private sector, using techniques such as text analysis and sentiment analysis.

In the meantime, if you’re still feeling nostalgic about punch cards? Visit the Living Computer Museum in Seattle, where you can type on one to your heart’s content.

There’s more to digital preservation than punch cards. Get your copy of The Guide to Records Management and learn more about the challenges organizations can overcome with a comprehensive records management strategy.

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