Born digital

Born digital

Which is the original of an electronic document, the digital file or the paper record?

By Laurie Varendorff

Welcome to 2002, when 98 per cent or more of correspondence is generated electronically by word processing software. But first, a history lesson!

The term was first used in IBM’s marketing of the MT/ST (Magnetic Tape/Selectric Typewriter), as a “word processing” machine. It was a translation of the German word textverabeitung, coined in the late 1950s by Ulrich Steinhilper, an IBM engineer.

The first dedicated word processing system was introduced in 1976, and by 1978 it had become the leader in what was then a niche with 50,000 users. Created by Wang Laboratories from America, it is a classic example of the history of word processing.

Dr An Wang, the company founder of Chinese origin, initially enjoyed success with storage components and universal computers. Finally, in the 1970s, he helped word processors to make the breakthrough and made Wang Laboratories one of the most successful computer companies in the USA.

Then came the computer software revolution with the release in 1979 by Micropro International of WordStar. This was the first commercially successful word processing software program produced for microcomputers, and the best selling software program of the early eighties.

In or around 1986 Microsoft entered the word processing software market with Word and a six per cent market share. WordStar had 13 per cent and WordPerfect 14 per cent. By 1997, Microsoft Word held 70 per cent of the market, and the rest of the story is now history.


The question that is posed by the extensive use of digital or electronic records is this: which is the legal original? Not being of a legal mind, I vote for the digital or electronically created document. Others will argue that the digital or electronic version is not a legal entity, as it has no signature and that only the signed and printed document, mailed or faxed, or electronically sent after the signature is attached, is the legal entity.

What is the situation now? Federally, and at least in some of the states with New South Wales, Tasmania, Queensland and Victoria, where electronic transaction Acts have been passed some two years ago, the electronic version may be the original. Other states such as WA are still awaiting passage of their legislation. The following discussion applies to national legislation.

When one refers to the term “born digital” in a records management environment we tend to restrict our vision to those documents that we create every day in a business environment, such as Microsoft Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, emails and PowerPoint presentations. Most are utilised in a paper environment at some stage of their distribution and access.

With electronic transactions occurring by the millions per minute, plus Web pages and other Internet, extranet and intranet activities, we in the records management profession are struggling against the mighty and overwhelming tide of electronic activities. We may not even be aware these have been created, transacted and finalised, let alone recorded and maintained as proof of any transaction ever occurring.The Western Australian Department of Industry and Technology has put together an excellent document, entitled Guidelines for State Government Web Sites (

Another body that has realised that it has not had a good grip on the born digital environment is NARA, the USA National Archives and Records Administration. NARA has released a 40 page document entitled Proposal for a Redesign of Federal Records Management, in which the observation is made that for the last several decades or so, electronic records have not been managed in such a way as to preserve their content, let alone their context for the present, let alone the future as archives. Details of the document can be obtained at This is an enlightening document and worthy of a read and possibly a comment back to the originators.

The whole issue of the management of documents born digital is becoming bogged down in the whys and hows, and the standards applicable to the situation. Why should we care? Does it hit our bottom line if we do not do it properly? Do we miss a turn on the Monopoly Board of reality and do not pass go, do not collect $200 and end up in jail? What are the real or potential costs involved if we neglect to manage our born electronic data?

Maybe the Western Australian Government could answer this question based on a real live situation. In March and May of 2001 two tenders went to Diskcovery Information Management for the processing of information. The information was to be presented to the inquiry carried out into the activities of the King Edward Memorial Hospital.My understanding of the two tenders was to convert electronic and other data held at King Edward Memorial Hospital and with the WA Health Department to a format which could be used to present to the Inquiry.

What benefit did the King Edward Memorial Hospital and the Health Department obtain from the expenditure on the system? Did this expenditure provide the King Edward Memorial Hospital and the Health Department with an infrastructure so that the management of electronic and other records would be managed in such a way that in the future, if another inquiry were carried out that similar expenditure would be unnecessary? I would dearly wish that to be the case.

No matter where we live in the corporate or government environment, we have a role that makes us responsible for information capture, creation and/or dissemination of information. How would our organisation fare, if tomorrow it was required to present all of its physical and electronic records to a court of law or an inquiry on a particular issue or a wider ranging situation?

My inclination is that we would in a similar or worse situation than that listed above. If you have any doubts have your IT people have a look at the number of emails you have stored on your system, including the main server plus all local hard drives. Then have a look at all Word, Excel, PowerPoint data and Access and other databases on the system and all local hard drives, and then total the finding. Then check to see what percentage of that information is recorded in or on your official records management system. You will have a heart attack on the spot.

When I ask records managers what percentage of the corporate information they have under control, they invariably quote me a figure of somewhere between 80 to 98 per cent, with the majority indicating the upper level. When I do an audit, I get the impression (as it is difficult to be exact) that the actual percentage would be 50 per cent.

Physical documents move around the enterprise and are never seen by the records section, contracts are entered into via email, and the only copy goes when the user is forced to clear his or her inbox or the IT section does it for them. The catastrophe grows with each revelation. You get responses like; “You are going to tell me that emails are records, aren’t you?” Yes I am. Another response would be: “How would I know that an email is a record?” My reply would be that the policy, procedures and practices manual in respect to the management of emails is posted on your intranet and has been there since 1997.

The response: “OH!”

We live in a wonderful world where we can instantly receive information, images and sound from anywhere in the world. We have yet to appreciate the current and future value of this wonderful resource, which is evidenced by the lack of investment and interest our leaders, political and corporate, place on its management.

Until records management becomes a core subject in business management courses at universities and the likes of the Australian Institute of Management - and for that matter, the Harvard Business School - we at the professional end will always struggle for the resources essential to maintain the organisation and society at large.


My belief of what records management is, and that relates to born electronic information as well, is as follows. It is a core business activity (and I mean business in the broadest sense) without which no organisation, however large or small, can meet its operational activities, its moral responsibilities, or can document proof of meeting its statutory, legal, financial or shareholder responsibilities, or provide for its history.

Records management is the foundation stone on which all organisations are built and which, without, they cannot operate effectively or efficiently. It is the core business activity and not an add-on, which we are forced to implement by threat of penalties or embarrassment.

Records management is good management practice and should be in the forefront of any executive mindset as a strategy for best practice to provide efficient, effective and cost minimisation initiatives. Without effective records management, inefficient and ineffective decision-making will be made and remade with mistakes repeated without a reliable decision-making information base from which to start to appropriately manage any situation. Effective records management will provide returns in proportion to the effectiveness of the records management system in place.

Records management is not a cost centre. It is a strategic investment from which all organisations will benefit greatly.

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