Keeping the records straight

Prof. Luciana Duranti put 17th-century monks to work for the Pentagon

by Gavin Wilson
Staff writer

Picture Three hundred years after a monk from Antwerp dared to ask a question that shook the Benedictine order to its foundations, the Pentagon came looking for the answer. Luciana Duranti was ready.

A professor in the School of Library, Archival and Information Sciences, Duranti knew the key lay in the field of diplomatics. This 17th-century science of authenticating records was developed by Benedictine scholars to defend against the monk's question, which challenged the order's right to its wealth and property.

The Pentagon had a problem common to every institution and business that uses computers -- how to produce and maintain reliable and authentic electronic records. It had just spent $2 million on a new records system. The system didn't work.

The search for a solution led them to Duranti, the only academic in North America doing theoretical research on the topic. Suddenly, she was working with experts in artificial intelligence, computer science and knowledge engineering.

Although archivists were once dismissed as the keepers of dusty old records, their knowledge is proving essential in this electronic age, when records and files can be as fleeting as electrons.

"Digital technology has given us record-making systems, not record-keeping systems. Their fragility is beyond belief," says Duranti. "But the solution is not so much a technological one as it is one of policy, procedure and method."

Why are record-keeping systems so important?

Ask Oliver North. The aide to former U.S. president Ronald Reagan was found guilty because a function of his computer's operating system exposed his role in the Iran-Contra scandal. He tried to cover his electronic tracks, only to leave a record of those same attempts.

"He was good, but not good enough," Duranti smiles.

Ask the pharmaceutical companies which are required by law to keep all their scientific notebooks for many decades.

Ask the businesses which are trying to find secure ways of conducting commerce on the Internet.

Records play a crucial role in most human endeavors. They are essential to all of our business and social interactions. They are the basis of our legal system. Government functions and accountability, medical treatment and scientific research all depend on them. Even records that may not seem important at the time they are produced may well have historical value later.

"The history of Renaissance art is written in the ledgers of the Vatican," Duranti says. "They tell you which artists were working, who commissioned their work, what colours they painted with, where they painted and who their collaborators were. They are much more reliable than biographical accounts because they were not written for posterity."

While no one can deny the importance of records, we have rushed into the computer age without considering the implications. Storing paper is one thing, but no standards exist for electronic records.

"The greatest threat we face is the nonchalance with which people treat electronic records. There is far too much accidental destruction and manipulation. We've already lost the last five generations of electronic records. The few we have cannot be proven reliable or authentic. It's a tragedy," Duranti says.

Adding urgency is a recent U.S. court decision that ruled a printout of an e-mail is not a valid or even a complete copy of a record. E-mails must be kept in electronic form to be considered authentic.

More challenges lie ahead. Technological obsolescence is the monster, Duranti says.

"As technologies change, records will have to be migrated to new systems, and every time you do that, you may lose up to 40 per cent of the original information. The question is, what is it that we can afford to lose and still have a reliable and authentic document?"

To find a solution, Duranti turned to diplomatics. Scholars had continued to refine the Benedictines' science in the two centuries following its invention. The intellectual foundation of archival science, diplomatics is still taught in European law schools and in departments of history and philology.

Diplomatics defines records by their components. For example, all records involve at least five persons: an author, addressee, writer, originator and creator. The relationship between them gives clues as to whether or not a record is to be trusted.

There are hundreds of such elements in each record and they can be applied to any form and medium of record, whether it is a clay tablet or an infrared photo taken from a satellite orbiting the earth.

The link between diplomatics and electronic records may not have happened if it were not for Duranti's unplanned move to Canada from Italy 10 years ago.

She was enjoying "la dolce vita" in one of the world's great cities, Rome. She had a tenured position at the university, her husband worked as a nuclear engineer, their two children were enrolled in good preschools and they had vacation homes in the mountains and by the sea.

"Our future," she says, "was all laid out for us."

Her husband's two-year stint at Atomic Energy of Canada to supervise a CANDU contract brought them to Toronto. While doing research, Duranti visited various universities, including UBC. Students who heard her speak asked her to apply for a position being advertised just then. She did.

"My husband and I never really talked about it, but subliminally we were both frustrated by the lack of movement in Italian universities and bureaucracy. We are proactive people who like to test new ideas. Italy was a no-risk environment. Here it is the opposite; we saw that we could try something different and went for it."

Since Duranti's work with the Pentagon, a stream of international visitors has followed, eager to learn more about the procedures and rules she has established for preserving records on electronic systems.

She is now embarking on a new four-year project, heading up an international team that includes five universities, resource and pharmaceutical companies and seven national archives.

They will look at the problems of setting international policies, procedures and standards for the long-term preservation of authentic electronic records.

A decade ago, Duranti felt the urge to escape the sometimes oppressive traditions of Europe. Now she is proving that some of these same traditions -- inscribed by monks with quill and paper -- can help us solve a potentially crippling problem in the age of the microchip.