Grey Lit and Authenticity

The following is by guest bloggers Jim Suderman and Hannelore Dekeyser.

Jim Suderman is a member of the Canadian research team in the UBC-based InterPARES 2 research project directed by Dr. Luciana DurantiHe has worked as an archivist for over twenty years in Manitoba and Ontario, and with electronic records for the past eight years. He is currently manager of records management services for the City of Toronto.

Hannelore Dekeyser is a legal researcher at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Law & ICT (K.U.Leuven, Belgium) where she has been working on the legal aspects of digital archiving since 2002During this time she was involved in the InterPARES 2 research project. Although her expertise lies in Belgian and EU law, she follows international developments with regards to electronic records with interest.

Theme leader Michael Lines has asked Jim and Hannelore to comment on what InterPARES isSee also the Slaw posting on InterPARES., and specifically on what InterPARES has discovered about evaluating the authenticity of a document, and if possible to situate that in relation to GL.

InterPARES is the International Research on Permanent Authentic Records in Electronic Systems, directed by Dr. Luciana Duranti, University of British Columbia. To date there have been two projects aiming at developing the theoretical and methodological knowledge essential to the long-term preservation of authentic records created and/or maintained in digital form. This knowledge should provide the basis from which to formulate model policies, strategies and standards capable of ensuring the longevity of such material and the ability of its users to trust its authenticity.

How does this relate to Grey Literature? While the InterPARES research is focused on electronic records, it has drawn heavily on the science of diplomatics, which emerged in Europe in the sixteenth century to detect forgeries among legal documents through a careful analysis of the content, structure and context of a record. I don’t know where forgeries fit exactly in the definition Michael provided:
GL is a species of documentation that includes many format types: reports, pre-prints, conference proceedings, discussion papers, project evaluations, and many others. At its best it is authoritative, very current, and easily available, but GL is not always at its best… – perhaps forgeries are grey literature at its worst!

Setting the idea of forgeries aside, it is easy to see that types of documents listed in the definition of GL are used for future reference, e.g., sharing a report to support a collective decision or reading the proceedings of a conference one was unable to attend. This means that beyond simply creating these documents, they must be maintained and kept accessible to be of any use. To support this basic use, documents must have a fixed form and stable content. They must also have an identifiable context. Who wrote or assembled the documents? For what purpose? Why or under what conditions are they being made available?

This becomes critically important in the digital environment where, with word processing and desktop publishing softwares, it is so easy to modify form, i.e., document structure, and content, i.e., the information the document contains, and so difficult to prove that form and content are unchanged. Especially when transmitting them across networks and maintaining them over time. Further complicating the electronic environment are means of managing information that have little analogy with experience from the paper environment, e.g., dynamic databases, such as the inventory at Amazon.com.

InterPARES research has concluded that maintaining the authenticity of electronic records is a continuous process that begins with the creation or accumulation of the documents and involves an expanding relationship with a trusted custodian. The creator of the documents must set out the form they are to take and the content they are to hold. At the point at which the creator considers the documents to be complete, these must be fixed. At first the role of the trusted custodian (trusted because s/he cannot have a stake in the content of the documents) is limited as the decisions outlined above belong to the creator. But as time passes the custodian’s role increases due to a variety of factors, but especially technological obsolescence, which can profoundly affect documentary content and form. The creator’s decisions about form, content, and completeness provide the baseline for how the custodian maintains the documents in a system that supports preservation and access.

Michael Lines referred me to the GreyNet site for some background on GL. The GreyNet disclaimer – which is similar to that of the Internet Archive (see Terms of Use at http://www.archive.org/about/terms.php) – may be a really good starting point for a discussion as I think it raises many of the concerns that InterPARES research addresses. GreyNet’s disclaimer reads (in really BIG letters):

You expressly understand and agree that GreyNet disclaims any and all responsibility or liability for the accuracy, content, completeness, legality, reliability, or operability or availability of information or material in the products and services. GreyNet disclaims any responsibility for the deletion, failure to store, delivery error, or untimely delivery of any information or material. GreyNet disclaims any responsibility or liability for any harm resulting from downloading or accessing any information or material through the products and services, including, without limitation, for harm caused by viruses or similar contamination or destructive features. GreyNet makes no warranty regarding the reliability or accessibility of member web pages or any storage facilities offered by GreyNet.

You understand and agree that any material downloaded or otherwise obtained through the use of the products and services is done at your own discretion and risk and that you will be solely responsible for any damages to your computer system or loss of data that results in the download of such material.

Disclaimer from GreyNet website: http://www.greynet.org/ (6 August 2006)

Jim Suderman and Hannelore Dekeyser

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Comments

  1. don warner saklad dsaklad@zurich.csail.mit.edu

    Grey literature produced by our city public library, public documents done internally are delayed or denied enquirers. Consultants’ reports, departments’ curatorial reports to the Boston Public Library President or Board are not made available. The flouting of intellectual freedom and public records principles is rife throughout our Public Library Department of the City of Boston.

  2. Don,

    Can you tell us why GL is not made available? I’m interested to see from a quick scan of the BPL website that there’s a lot of what might be categorized as GL available there. Is there a communications or other “publishing” group that such text has to go through, that is different from reports to the President or the Board?

    I’m curious as sometimes risk-averse organizations make documents available but then disclaim any responsibility for them. The ones I’m aware of are governmental websites for the statutes of the jurisdiction, see for example the disclaimer for Ontario’s e-laws at http://www.e-laws.gov.on.ca/disclaimer_E.asp?lang=en). I realize that in that example, the public has recourse to other versions, even if accessing those other, authoritative versions is inconvenient.

  3. Except Jim that Bill 14 will remove that Disclaimer when the House passes it in the autumn, for then e-laws will have equal official status:

    Presumption, printed by Queen’s Printer

    30. Unless the contrary is proved, a copy of a source law or consolidated law purporting to be printed by the Queen’s Printer or other prescribed entity was so printed.

    Presumption, accessed from e-Laws

    31. Unless the contrary is proved, a copy of a source law or consolidated law submitted with an oral or written statement to the effect that it was accessed from the e-Laws website in a form or format prescribed under clause 35 (1) (b) was so accessed.

    Official copies of source law as evidence

    32. Unless the contrary is proved, an official copy of a source law is an accurate statement of that law.

  4. Simon C:

    I knew that a bill had been drafted but wasn’t aware of its current status. Does anyone know if federal or other provincial/territorial e-laws sites are planning to remove their disclaimers?

    Thanks very much for the quotations, particularly the presumption component. What this says to me is that the activity of preparing text for statutes is now set out to the satisfaction of the Govt of Ontario, and that the ICT (Information Communication Technologies) have been deemed satisfactorily secure not only for the creation of electronic statutes, but also for their maintenance and transmission.

    To refer to another posting I made earlier (but not on this thread), a ‘usual and ordinary course of business’ has been defined and authenticity can be presumed. Obviously it can also be challenged, but I would venture to say that holds for any evidence.

  5. In Belgium, the government stopped distributing legislation to the public on paper, but refers everyone to the official website.
    A handful of official copies are produced on paper, one of which goes to the National Archives, another is ‘at the disposal of the public’ in Brussels. The odd thing is, that the law says that only those handful paper copies are the ‘official version’. That’s 1 copy for 10 million Belgians.

    The website is ‘only’ a courtesy copy of the official version. The memorandum actually said that in case of doubt, citizens should check whether the electronic version is an accurate copy of the paper version. (I can just imagine the queue forming now)

    Though there is no actual disclaimer on the website, this suggests at least an unwillingness to take responsibility for the electronic official journal.

    I would like to see a bill like the one proposed in Canada, whereby the government acknowledges that the electronic version is the one relied on by citizens and businesses, and therefor they should take responsibility for it being authentic.

    I would also like to see some basic security/reliability features implemented. For instance, I feel the webserver should at the very least be certified. Perhaps the texts should be timestamped somehow as well. Now I must have blind faith that I’m connecting to the right server, and that the government or third parties haven’t modified the material since the publication date.

    Perhaps legislation and case law are a special kind of GL, since these represent decisions that impact others.

    What if the ‘usual and ordinary course of business’ is so badly designed or executed that one can’t seriously presume authenticity of its output?

  6. I should just clarify that there are two things at play in the example I gave above: good practices in preservation and good practices in delivery or dissemination of records.

    Certifying a webserver and timestamping or signing records have their place primarily in delivery of records.

    Where preservation is concerned, the utility of certificates, timestamps and digital signatures is questionable to say the least. It is certain that these techniques are not a silver bullet, though I keep running into people who say otherwise.