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Information Management - Information Matters




Subsection 5(1) of the National Archives of Canada Act states that no record under the control of a government institution shall be destroyed without the consent of the National Archivist. Even if institutions do not actively dispose of electronic records through the deletion of data or the destruction of recording media, de facto disposal of records in electronic form can occur if the systems in which they are stored are not maintained as active and if system documentation for such inactive systems is misplaced or destroyed.


In responding to the Year 2000 problem, it is widely understood that a number of information systems -- mainly databases -- of lesser importance to government institutions will be retired, rather than converted. Nonetheless, these systems could contain electronic records having long-term operational and archival value. In order to assist institutions in safeguarding such records until their long-term value is determined, the National Archives of Canada (NA) has identified three approaches to ensure post-Year 2000 access to records in non-Y2K compliant databases. These guidelines also specify what contextual information and system documentation must be preserved. This advice is limited to databases whose hardware or software environment is expected to malfunction. For the purposes of these guidelines, a database is defined as a set of data, consisting of at least one file or a group of integrated files, stored in one location and made available to users. The guidelines do not apply to other types of information systems, such as office automation systems. The options can be applied to:

  • Databases identified as archival by the NA but which will not be transferred to our custody prior to 1 January 2000; and
  • Databases which have not yet been, and cannot be appraised by the NA prior to 1 January 2000.

Please note that if an individual system is covered by a Records Disposition Authority, but has not been identified as being of archival and historical value, disposition can take place without further authorization by the National Archives.


  1. Export to flat file structure in ASCII (ISO 8859-1) code. This is the logical format most frequently identified for databases being transferred to the NA. It is non-proprietary and can be easily re-loaded into a database environment. All standard system documentation (as defined below) is to be printed to paper, or extracted in the same file format as the data. The data would remain available to the NA in its original file structure, and basic "database functionality" would be retained.
  2. Establish a "replica" system of the computer platform that was used to create, or currently maintains the database(s) in question. The internal clock in the "replica" system must remain set at a date of no later than 31 December 1999. All standard system documentation (as defined below) is to be maintained with the data or printed to paper. As additional insurance, the database(s) should be copied to compact disc (CD), or any other stable physical storage format which the government institution intends to support through the Year 2000 cross-over.
  3. Print to paper. This option shall only be used for small applications which, when printed out, would result in less than 2,000 pages. In addition, the application software must be unable to export a flat file structure in ASCII code without additional custom programming (i.e., mainframes and minicomputers). The report format chosen must include all information required to meet the department's traditional operational requirements as well as any on-going reference requirements, with the records sorted in an order designed to facilitate consultation. All standard system documentation (as defined below) should also be printed to paper. This option ensures that the data would be available should the NA identify it for long-term preservation, though only as a paper document.


Contextual Information

The following information is essential in order to determine the archival value of the records:

  1. Complete title of the system, including common acronyms, if applicable
  2. Identification of the program area responsible for the administration of the system, as well as the appropriate division/branch/directorate/institution; name and phone number of technical contact.
  3. A brief description of the system's purpose.
  4. If applicable, a brief description of any sub-systems, their purpose and relationship to the main system or other sub-systems.
  5. Links to textual or other media records, normally through identifying file numbers or by some other means.
  6. The number of the Records Disposition Authority covering the system, if in place.

System Documentation

This information is necessary for the technical evaluation of systems. System documentation, regardless of logical form, must include the following essential information:

  1. Record Layout including, for each data element, the short field name (or acronym), its starting and ending position, its length and the type of data it will contain (alpha, numeric, alpha-numeric and any special occurrences such as packed decimal values).
  2. Data Definition including, for each data element, a long field name, an equivalence to the short field name contained in the record layout above, and a comprehensive definition of the intended content of the field.
  3. Code values for all coded fields, including the legal code values permitted in the field and the definition of each code allowed. These are often included with the data definitions above.
  4. User and/or system manager manuals. These should include any literature (paper or electronic) describing the use of the application in the institution and how employees interact with it. These types of manuals frequently include examples of input forms, input screens, and sample reports generated by the application.

Any of the above can be submitted in paper form. If they exist in electronic form, database-type items should be forwarded in a flat ASCII file, while the format of word-processed documents needs to be negotiated with the NA in advance.

For further information or to propose other safeguarding alternatives, please contact the Information Systems Analyst responsible for your institution:

Government Archives and Records Disposition Division
National Archives of Canada
395 Wellington Street
Ottawa, ON K1A 0N3
Telephone: 613-947-1480 Fax: 613-947-1546