Cornell University Electronic Student Records Systems Project Report

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2. Universal Systems Issues

Recordkeepers have been struggling with electronic systems since databases were first introduced in the 1960s. Through the collective experiences of a number of ongoing electronic records preservation programs and increasingly as a result of archival research, archivists have identified some preservation approaches for records in systems. These include appraisal strategies that are based on system benchmarks and enable effective preservation practice; preservation management strategies for selected file formats that are stored on approved media; and documentation requirements for the preservation of records in systems. A number of preservation questions remain, however, particularly surrounding the insurance of authenticity and the preservation of complex records structures. Researchers are actively pursuing answers to these questions.

A good preservation strategy should and does reflect the complexity of the records. As new technologies are introduced and more complex records are created, new strategies must be formulated. 7 The diagram below reflects fundamental elements for electronic records preservation and relationships between these elements. Electronic records require a preservation strategy that responds to the organizational setting of the records.

An electronic record consists of three elements: content, file format and storage format (or media). Content is the primary component on which appraisal decisions are based. Technical considerations may also influence the appraisal decision. For example, if the content is potentially valuable but the records are too difficult to preserve, the appraisal decision may be to not retain the records. Prior to evaluating technical considerations, however, if the records do not document something that warrants retention, the records will not be retained. Whether the records are maintained online, near-line or off-line, they are captured in some kind of file format. This file format may or may not be software-dependent. 8 The traditional approach has been to avoid software-dependent files, but that has become more difficult with the increasing complexity of file types. File formats in turn, whether online, near-line or off-line, are stored on some kind of storage format (or media), from a hard disk to magnetic cartridge. Preservation issues for file and storage formats for electronic student records systems are included in section 5 and discussed more generally in Appendix B.

The organizational setting of the record determines the preservation requirements that must be met for the record. The preservation strategy is the bridge between the technical characteristics and the content of the record and the context of the record. Ideally, a preservation strategy captures and defines all of the actions that were and will be taken to insure the preservation of the records. The documentation of preservation actions evolves with and becomes part of the record. To address technical characteristics, archivists can share common preservation procedures and practices based on types of records. To address the context of the records, archivists must select the appropriate preservation strategy by considering the implications of policies and requirements that may be particular to an industry, an institution or a system. It is contextual issues that have made cooperation among archivists difficult. For example, national archives, many of which have been required to preserve electronic records since the 1960s, have different requirements than archives at lower governmental levels or in corporate and academic environments have. The more archivists learn about both technical and contextual areas, the more possible it will be to establish and share common preservation frameworks.

There is another level of technical characteristics that is implicit in the above diagram, but not explicitly portrayed. An electronic record is the product of some kind of software environment. With the introduction of technological innovations, such as PC-based computing, Windows and the Internet, records may be created and maintained in a range of environments from complex systems that control the complete lifecycle of records to individual records that are stored on a tool-based, user-controlled network. In the first case, for example, a document management system may control a record from creation to use to destruction or transfer to non-current storage. On the other hand, a record may also be created using a word processing package, then stored informally and arbitrarily in an individual or shared directory. Some archivists believe that unless a record is created in a formal system that meets recordkeeping requirements as defined by archivists, records may not or should not be retained. However, many records are created in uncontrolled environments, outside of formal systems. Preservation requirements can only be determined by examining the organizational setting.

The type of environment in which a record is created has an impact on the type of preservation solution that might be applied to that record. For example, when a word processing document is created in an informal, tool-based environment, it would be very difficult and possibly cost-prohibitive to establish a preservation solution that is completely automated. It would, however, be possible, through controlled procedures and practices, to preserve records from that environment, assuming that the resulting preservation strategy meets organizational preservation requirements. Records that are created in a system-based environment are generally created as part of a more formal process. These systems have built-in procedures that can be used to support preservation and, in addition, can be modified to meet preservation requirements.

It is important for archivists to understand the type of records that need to be preserved as well as the organizational setting of the records before an appropriate preservation strategy can be devised. It is unlikely that universities create student records in an informal, uncontrolled environment, but student records systems have a range of implementation options, some of which will be discussed in section 4. In addition, preservation strategies should include all of the components of student records; for example, strategies should include the preservation of course descriptions and syllabi, which may be captured in a number of non-systematic ways. The remainder of this section addresses recordkeeping requirements and long-term access issues.

At Cornell, the implementation of PeopleSoft will include a conversion of the student records system. The first priority is to insure that all records are moved to the new system and available when needed to respond to requests for records. 9 The next priority is to establish a long-term preservation plan for the records. Once the new system is implemented all of the records will no longer be retained online. Cornell has paper copies of student records through 1980 and electronic records online from 1980 on.

Recommendation 1: Define the context of the electronic student records system

Student Records Systems are likely to be very formal, controlled systems. Increasingly, universities are implementing software packages, such as PeopleSoft, to integrate their core systems, including student records. However, depending on the university’s size, type, and resource, the systems may be much simpler. Getting a basic sense of the student records system is the starting point.

2.1Recordkeeping Requirements

As discussed in the previous section, fully exploring and mapping the organizational setting is a major step in establishing relevant recordkeeping requirements, a step that must be completed when developing a preservation strategy. Understanding the setting is something that must be done within and by the organization, more often adapting rather than adopting another organization’s approach. This process requires the development of a different perspective and more technical skillset than archivists have traditionally possessed. The need to preserve electronic records has frequently been credited with the shift in the archival profession:



capturing records at the end of the lifecycle

actively tracking records throughout the lifecycle to insure adequate preservation

analyzing existing electronic systems

actively participating in the design and implementation of systems

maintaining a professional distance from records managers

working closely with records managers 10

generally implicit and informal recordkeeping requirements that are learned through experience and imposed by archivists just prior to or after the transfer of the records

explicit and formal recordkeeping requirements that are proactively promoted and implemented by archivists in records creation environments

A number of research projects have produced results that support matching the organization’s setting to appropriate requirements. These projects reflect the impact of technology on the creation and preservation of records, as well as the implications for organizations of changes caused by that impact.

The University of Pittsburgh’s Electronic Records Project in a very well-known and influential project applied a process used in system design and implementation to define system requirements for recordkeeping systems. The resulting functional requirements have been widely discussed and several follow-on projects tested the implications of implementing the functional requirements in real settings.

Indiana University is one of the most prominent of these follow-on projects, as well as one of the few research projects to actively address the records of the Office of the Registrar. Indiana produced a revised version of the requirements based on a series of case studies. Indiana’s results are extensive and impressive but, despite efforts towards generalizable results, the findings are often closely tied to Indiana’s organizational setting.

The Models for Action project, a collaboration between the Center for Technology in Government and the New York State Archives, produced a series of reports on systems design issues for recordkeeping, including a scaled down version of the Pittsburgh requirements. Models for Action presents their findings in what has been described as a more approachable and practical manner, particularly for recordkeepers who are less familiar with electronic systems.

The DIRKS manual, developed in Australia with input from David Bearman of the Pittsburgh project, presents a sequence of steps on designing and implementing recordkeeping systems. DIRKS presents system design and implementation stages and practices from a recordkeeping perspective.

Preserving reliable and authentic electronic records has been the topic of a number of recent research projects and publications. For example, the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) just produced a publication entitled: Authenticity in a Digital Environment, which broadens the discussion beyond archives and presents essays on pertinent themes. The University of Pittsburgh project and the University of British Columbia (UBC) project with its sequel, the InterPARES project are the most well-known projects. Paul Marsden's article comparing the Pittsburgh and UBC projects provides a good overview of these projects. 11 Records as evidence versus records as information is a central theme of this research. Section 5 of this report discusses possible evidential and informational value in student records and the associated preservation options.

There are a number of ongoing research projects that may produce relevant results. Appendix D and Appendix F contain information and citations for these and other relevant research projects.

Recommendation 2: Review and select the recordkeeping approach that suits the setting.

Until there is a common, accepted and implemented approach to recordkeeping requirements and preservation strategies, recordkeepers must identify the approach that is most suited to their organizational setting, specifically the type of legal and other requirements to which they are subject. Even within one approach, there are decisions to make about the method and level of implementation.


2.2 Long-term Access Issues

These are some general issues pertaining to long-term access.

Preservation programs

Long-term access requires preservation management to insure that the records are accessible. The archives must consider the alternatives for preservation management and identify the best option. Appendix C, Electronic Preservation Program Guidelines, provides an overview of these issues and Appendix G, Student Records Self-Assessment, includes a section on the preservation program.

For example, like most universities, Cornell has access to a data archives with expertise, tools and equipment, as well as a well-maintained and equipped computer center. These could form the basis of an in-house electronic records preservation program. In addition, the archives has access to experts in digital preservation who can not only assist in the development of the preservation program, as well as undertake research in new areas of digital preservation. A cooperative effort with the FEDORA (Flexible and Extensible Digital Object and Repository Architecture) team in the Computer Science Department could produce new solutions.

Preservation program parameters

The preservation program must establish a policy on acceptable file formats and storage media for transfer, preservation and access. Appendix B, Preservation Storage and Processing Considerations, provides an overview of these issues and Appendix G includes a section on the file formats and storage media.

Documentation and metadata

Documentation is a key factor in the preservation of electronic records. Changes in technology affect the types, format and content of documentation needed. The terms documentation and metadata have been used very loosely, sometimes interchangeably and sometimes exclusively. There are many digital preservation research projects that address metadata. Archival metadata issues for student records systems are covered in section 3.2 on AACRAO's metadata definition for transcripts and databases. Appendix B provides an overview of documentation and metadata. Appendix D, Relevant Sources, and Appendix F, Relevant Research Projects, provide information on and citations for metadata research projects.

Recommendation 3: Carefully identify and establish the preservation infrastructure needed

While organizations tend to want a simple or ‘cookbook’ solution for the preservation of electronic records, in practice, there are a number of steps that have to be taken to define the preservation program an organization will need to meet its requirements. As archival research continues, more is known about the steps needed and the potential results that can assist organizations in this process. The appendices to this report provide relevant information and resources to assist.