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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University February 25, 2008 | Vol. 37 No. 23
Mountains of Material Need Saving

JHMI takes first steps to preserve digital holdings

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Each year, the digital holdings of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions grow exponentially. Just imagine a mountain of electronic records related to research, education, patient care, finance and administration. Now toss on top of that pile digital images, electronic publications and personal faculty papers. The list doesn't end there, but already you have Mt. Everest.

While this information is backed up and secured at the department or division level, JHMI does not currently have an overarching plan in place for the future preservation and management of all these electronic records.

Concerned about the risk of losing a large portion of critical institutional records in electronic formats, the Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives has taken the lead on a feasibility study, which begins next month, for an electronic records management program that would serve the schools of Medicine, Nursing and Public Health and The Johns Hopkins Hospital.

To aid its mission, the Medical Archives last month received from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission a grant for $50,000, a figure that was matched by the School of Medicine.

Nancy McCall, an archivist for the School of Medicine and author of the grant proposal, said that in developing a strategic digital archiving plan for the Medical Archives, it became clear that there was no such plan in place at the institutional level.

"The information is just piling up, and what happens to it after five years or so? Will we be able to access all of it? What if we lose some of it? Right now there are no provisions," McCall said.

"Our aim with this feasibility study is to serve as a catalyst for the discussion of issues related to the management of electronic records. We want to bring people together and raise the level of consciousness to these concerns."

McCall said that a major concern is that significant institutional information in electronic formats will not survive unless concerted measures are taken to preserve the data and migrate it to formats where it may be made accessible and usable on a long-term basis.

The main goal of the study is to develop a feasible electronic records management model for JHMI that institutional leaders will accept, endorse and begin to implement. The proposal would be completed by March 2009 and presented to JHMI leadership.

To shepherd the process, the Medical Archives will use the grant to hire an electronic records archivist who would serve as project coordinator. Members of the Medical Archives will initially staff the project. Over the next 12 months, they will bring together JHMI staff, faculty and students who will serve as an advisory team and offer the expertise needed to select a viable conceptual model for the records management program.

Darren Lacey, chief information security officer for the university and Johns Hopkins Medicine, said that the feasibility study is an important project that will certainly raise a lot of interesting questions.

"There are a whole bunch of technology-related issues related to the management of this amount of data, and you can spend forever digging through that. Then, there are privacy and security questions for handling all this information," said Lacey, who will serve as an adviser for the project. "The challenge of it all is aligning the interests among the different groups that have an interest in medical records. Perhaps this study will help frame the issues people have so we can understand what we want to do moving forward."

McCall said that in the coming months she hopes to bring together key people to begin the development of the digital management plan. "This is just the very beginning of our efforts," she said. "This is something that I, personally, have been concerned with for two decades, and I'm excited to move forward with the process."


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