Are databases government records?

While it might seem obvious that they are records, yet this has been an ongoing debate among archivists and copyright advocates.  Here are some thoughts at least as it pertains to geospatial data:

The following definitions in the Library and Archives of Canada Act are relevant for geospatial information and databases (LAC Act, Definitions, pp. 1-2, and also p. 6 for recording):

  • Documentary heritage: publications and records of interest to Canada.
  • Government record: a record that is under the control of a government institution.
  • Ministerial record: a record of a member of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada who holds the office of a minister and that pertains to that office, other than a record that is of a personal or political nature or that is a government record.
  • Publication: any library matter that is made available in multiple copies or at multiple locations, whether without charge or otherwise, to the public generally or to qualifying members of the public by subscription or otherwise. Publications may be made available through any medium and may be in any form, including printed material, on-line items or recordings.
    • Record: any documentary material other than a publication, regardless of medium or form.
  • Recording: anything that requires a machine in order to use its content, whether sounds, images or other information.

The LAC Act makes no specific reference to form, format or media, which means that geospatial data, databases and maps are considered to be government records, that may have documentary heritage qualities.  Record creators are therefore responsible for managing this content in the event that these records are to be accessioned by LAC. LAC’s responsibility is to advise, provide leadership, technical expertise, professional expertise and financial support to assist record creators and other federal geospatial information producers with preserving their records.

When archiving geospatial data, databases and maps, the Copyright Act must also be taken into consideration, as would licenses and access rights.  Geospatial data, databases and maps may fall within the following definitions in the Copyright Act:

  • Artistic work: includes paintings, drawings, maps, charts, plans, photographs, engravings, sculptures, works of artistic craftsmanship, architectural works, and compilations of artistic works;
  • Book: which is a volume or a part or division of a volume, in printed form, but does not include (a) a pamphlet, (b) a newspaper, review, magazine or other periodical, (c) a map, chart, plan or sheet music where the map, chart, plan or sheet music is separately published, and (d) an instruction or repair manual that accompanies a product or that is supplied as an accessory to a service;
  • Collective Work:  which is  (a) an encyclopedia, dictionary, year book or similar work, (b) a newspaper, review, magazine or similar periodical, and (c) any work written in distinct parts by different authors, or in which works or parts of works of different authors are incorporated;
  • Compilation: (a) a work resulting from the selection or arrangement of literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works or of parts thereof, or (b) a work resulting from the selection or arrangement of data but not the geospatial data itself…;
  • Computer Program: which is a set of instructions or statements, expressed, fixed, embodied or stored in any manner, that is to be used directly or indirectly in a computer in order to bring about a specific result;
  • Every original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic work: includes every original production in the literary, scientific or artistic domain, whatever may be the mode or form of its expression, such as compilations, books, pamphlets and other writings, lectures, dramatic or dramatico-musical works, musical works, translations, illustrations, sketches and plastic works relative to geography, topography, architecture or science;
  • Literary work: includes tables, computer programs, and compilations of literary works;
  • Definition of “publication”: 2.2 (1) For the purposes of this Act, “publication” means (a) in relation to works, (i) making copies of a work available to the public

If any data, databases or maps are produced by an employee of the Federal Government, then copyright belongs to Her Majesty. Works created by the Federal Government of Canada can be licensed and  federal producers’ geospatial data, databases and maps are covered by many licenses.  However, there are no universal licenses for geospatial or any other data being used within the Government of Canada.

A digital map, a digital mapping dataset and a digital mapping database can be a record, a recording, a publication, part of a ministerial record and also be of documentary heritage as defined in the Act.  How these are classified is contingent on how it fits in a department or agency’s mandate and other digital mapping data producers’ business practices and how these are valued by the institution.  For instance the Atlas of Canada may be a publication, which is also a record that could also be considered to be of documentary heritage.  The host institutions, the record creator, would appraise[1] it as such, as would Atlas Stakeholders (e.g., school teachers) or potentially the Librarian and Archivist of Canada might do so.  How and when to capture snapshots of the Atlas, whether or not that is the best method to adopt, and when to accession[2] it in the Archive is not yet determined, and would have to be discussed between LAC and the Atlas.  A host institution and LAC would then collaborate in deciding how the Atlas or any other geospatial dataset is to be made available to future generations of Canadians and how those future generations will view the them. The processes of appraising, how to manage, and how to preserve would be repeated for other datasets, databases and maps.

The TBS Standard on Geospatial Data is the only TB document that relates specifically to the geospatial information domain. Coming into effect in June 2009, the objective of this standard is “to support stewardship and interoperability of information by ensuring that departments access, use and share geospatial data efficiently and effectively to support program and service delivery”. While this standard does not explicitly reference digital information archiving and preservation, there is a linkage between it and LAC’s File Format Guidelines for Preservation and Long-term Access.  These guidelines recommend the same format as included in the TB standard (ISO TC 211 ISO 19115 Geographic Information – Metadata (NAP – Metadata) (North American Profile)) for preservation of and long term access to digital geospatial information held by government organizations.

A digital map, dataset or database could be a ministerial record if it formed part of a particular decision in that office. These digital objects, irrespective of their form, would then be a part of that particular ministerial record set.

For Archivists, specifically InterPARES I stated that five characteristics are required for a digital entity to be a record:

  1. stable content and fixed form;
  2. embedded action;
  3. archival bond;
  4. three persons (i.e. author, addressee, writer);
  5. and an identifiable administrative and documentary context.

For some case studies, conducted by InterPARES II, particularly Cybercartographic Atlas of Antarctica (CS06)[3] and VanMap (CS24)[4], which are explicitly designed to allow for data to change and information to be added, this means that they are not or do not contain records in archival terms.  To become records, they must be fixed in time and space.  InterPARES 2, VanMap and San Diego Centre for Supercomputing have collaboratively designed a research study to determine whether it might be feasible to introduce fixity into the system by changing the system’s architecture so that each time a layer is updated the layer is saved and set aside. This would allow composite views of VanMap to be assembled for any given date, consisting of layers that had been saved on that date or most recently prior to that date.[5]  This is however a far from perfect solution and is both expensive and beyond the capacity of most institutions creating and using these dynamic products.

One of the most serious problems in this respect is that for most geospatial data creators the term “record” means data, databases, and related information.  For many archivists, these are not considered records except in very special and limited circumstances, where the concept of “bounded variability”[6] may be applied.  This is not simply a matter of semantics.  It is a fundamental difference in perspective between creators and preservers, compounded by the emergence in all disciplines of ephemeral interactive information which exists only in cyberspace.  This is particularly the case for many of the InterPARES 2 Case Studies (like the Cybercartographic Atlas and VanMap) which are interactive, experiential and dynamic.  Duranti and Thibodeau argue that

interactions between humans and computer systems, experiences enabled or mediated by experiential systems, and processes which are carried out with at least some degree of spontaneity by dynamic systems are not the residue of action. They are not means of remembering either what was done or what is to be done. In short, they are not records.[7]

This archival position is entirely defensible from the perspective of the theory of diplomatics[8] but is problematic in many scientific situations, such as for computational data where a model or a simulation is the primary result.  The nature of the “record” is changing dramatically and traditional archival science will have to adapt to these changes in both theoretical and practical terms if they are to preserve this new information environment in the archives of the twenty first century.

Who manages and preserves these then?

Although the problems and challenges of archiving these dynamic data sets and digital artifacts are being identified, the institutional environment is often not conducive to the systematic action required to address the problem.  For example Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is not ready to systematically archive born digital geospatial data, databases and maps let alone complex artifacts such as the Atlas of Canada.

Currently, there are a few LAC guidelines for cartographic material, but these are general in nature and primarily address paper maps.  The 2006 LAC  Managing Cartographic, Architectural and Engineering Records in the Government of Canada[8] made only passing reference to digital maps such as “the National Archives acquires geomatic systems” and “geomatic records include geomatic systems, discs, CD-ROMs and other cartographic material in electronic formats” (LAC 2006a).  This has since been updated[9]; however, the focus remains primarily on paper content and digitized paper content. The 2011 document still refers the reader to the 2001 Canadian Committee on Archival Description (CCAD) Rules for Archival Description Chapter 5[10] for information pertaining to standards and practices for cartographic records.  The Rules primarily address paper maps while general issues pertaining to digital databases and programs are covered in the 2003 Chapter 9: Records in Electronic Form[11]While both of the CCAD documents are designed for archivists who manage these records, these documents could be useful references for government record managers.

The LAC Local Digital Format Registry (LDFR) File Format Guidelines for Preservation and Long-term Access Version 1.0[12] includes Geospatial guidelinesThe Geospatial[13] section recommends TC 211 ISO 19115 Geographic Information – Metadata (NAP– Metadata) (North American Profile). This is a dynamic document that will improve as knowledge grows and as digital geospatial data record creators and managers contribute to it. While these documents are lauded as a good start, they fall short of adequate guidelines for the kind of digital geospatial artifacts discussed in the InterPARES 2 Case Studies, the portals in the InterPARES 2 General Study on Data Portals.

[1]     Defined as n. ~ The study of the creation, form, and transmission of records, and their relationship to the facts represented in them and to their creator, in order to identify, evaluate, and communicate their nature and authenticity.

[2]     n., The process of assessing the value of records for the purpose of determining the length and conditions of their preservation. (InterPARES 2 Terminology Database – )

[3]     v., To take legal and physical custody of a body of records and to document it in a register. (InterPARES 2 Terminology Database –

[4]     Sherry Xie, Diplomatic Analysis CS06 Cybercartographic Atlas of Antarctica (revised), (Vancouver, 2006).

[5]     Jennifer Douglas, CS24 Diplomatic Analysis Template Preservation of the City of Vancouver GIS database (VanMap) (Vancouver, 2006).

[6]     Evelyn McLellan, CS24 City of Vancouver Geographic Information System (VanMap), (Vancouver, 2005). See also the article “From Data to Records:  Preserving the Geographic Information System of the City of Vancouver,” by Glenn Dingwall, Richard Marciano, Regan Moore and Evelyn Peters McLellan in this issue of Archivaria.

[7]     Evelyn McLellan, CS24 City of Vancouver Geographic Information System (VanMap) CS24.

[8]     Luciana Duranti and Kenneth Thibodeau, 2006, “The Concept of Record in Interactive, Experiential and Dynamic Environments: the View of InterPARES,” Archival Science vol. 6 no.1, pp.13-68  p. 59.

[9]     Library and Archives Canada (LAC), File Format Guidelines for Preservation and Long-term Access Version 1.0, accessed February 2011.

[10]     Library and Archives Canada (LAC), File Format Guidelines for Preservation and Long-term Access Version 1.0 2.9 Content Category: Geospatial, accessed February 2011.

[11]     Library and Archives Canada (LAC), accessed 2006, Managing Cartographic, Architectural and Engineering Records in the Government of Canada,  Ottawa: Government of Canada, (NOTE – this link is no longer live)

[12]     Library and Archives Canada (LAC), accessed 2011, Managing Cartographic, Architectural and Engineering Records in the Government of Canada,  Ottawa: Government of Canada,

[13]     Canadian Committee on Archival Description, 2001, Rules for Archival Description Chapter 5 Cartographic Materials, accessed February 2011.

[14]     Canadian Committee on Archival Description, 2003, Rules for Archival Description Chapter 9 Records in Electronic Form, accessed February 2011.