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Keeping Digital Public Records on the Record

​The General Assembly has amended the SC Freedom of Information Act repeatedly since it came to life in 1978, but the examples of public records that the law gives, even now, are all media formats that wouldn't be out of place in the 1970s: "all books, papers, maps, photographs, cards, tapes, recordings."

The language that legally defines public records concludes with a catchall that can cover all types of media developed over the years: "other documentary materials regardless of physical form or characteristics prepared, owned, used, in the possession of, or retained by a public body."

As Clark Cooper, virtual chief information officer with VC3, notes, the spirit of that final part of the definition means that the documents that are covered by FOIA can include digital records ranging from email to social media and text messages — even text messages on a personal cell phone in which city business is conducted.

Jessica Hills, an electronic records analyst with the SC Department of Archives and History, put it another way in a presentation to the SC Municipal Attorneys Association: "It's based on content and not medium."

The SCDAH's archives and records management division has retention schedules for public bodies in South Carolina, including one for municipal records. When records are created, cities and towns are responsible for holding on to them in accordance with the schedules. In some cases, new categories of records may not fit into the standard rules, and so SCDAH collaborates with the local government to create a specific retention schedule.

South Carolina government records stretch back centuries, so in the timescales of archive management, digital records are still very new, and they bring very different challenges than paper files. Hills has some advice for city and town officials managing their records, saying that the greatest challenge is hardware and software obsolescence. She sometimes asks people to imagine how they could attempt to access data on a decades-old floppy disk.

"You absolutely cannot put electronic records on a CD or a USB key, then put them on a shelf and ignore them for 20 years," she said. "20 years down the line, you will not have access to them."

She said officials need to plan for migrating or converting files as technology changes. She recommends that public bodies sample their records every year by attempting to open them. Any difficulty in this can "sound the alarm if they're losing the ability to access the material," and show that there is now a need to convert information.